Pope celebrates new faith conversions on Easter



By Frances D'Emilio

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI rejoiced over conversions to Christianity in an Easter Sunday Mass on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica a day after he baptized a prominent Muslim newspaper editor.

A white canopy protected the 80-year-old pontiff from a downpour while thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans braved thunder and wind-whipped rain.

The faithful were celebrating their belief in the resurrection of Jesus after he was crucified. Thanks to the apostles’ preaching about the resurrection, “thousands and thousands of persons converted to Christianity,” Benedict said.

“And this is a miracle which renews itself even today,” the pope said, hours after a Saturday night Easter vigil service in which he baptized seven adults. The converts included Magdi Allam, a prominent journalist and commentator in Italy who has received death threats for his denunciations of Islamic fanaticism.

Allam, 55, deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper, was born a Muslim in Egypt, but was educated by Catholics and says he has never been a practicing Muslim.

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    He wrote in a front-page letter published Sunday in Corriere that he was now taking on the middle name Cristiano – Christian in Italian.

    He expressed his gratitude to Benedict, calling Saturday “the most beautiful day of my life.”

    “The miracle of the resurrection of Christ reverberated in my soul, freeing it from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an ‘enemy,’ prevailed over love and respect for your neighbor,” Allam wrote in the letter.

    His criticism of Palestinian suicide bombings prompted the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail in 2003 after Hamas singled him out for death, Allam has said in an interview.

    The pope himself has come under verbal attack from Islamic militants.

    Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a new audio message posted last week, accused Benedict of playing a role in what he called a “new Crusade” against Islam. The Vatican has described the accusation as baseless.

    Security during papal public appearances was stepped up in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, and there has been no noticeable increase in protective measures since the new message surfaced.