The Easter baptism of an Italian Muslim by Pope Benedict was a provocative act that raises questions about the Vatican's approach to Islam, a leading participant in Christian-Muslim dialogue said on Monday.
Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of over 200 Muslim scholars launching discussion forums with Christian groups, said the Vatican had turned the baptism of Egyptian-born journalist Magdi Allam into "a triumphalist tool for scoring points".
He said the Vatican should distance itself from a searing attack on Islam that Allam published on Sunday in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, where he is deputy director.
Commentators in Algeria and Morocco echoed Nayed's view, saying Allam's conversion was a personal affair but his attacks on Islam and his headline-grabbing baptism by the Pope strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church.
"The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.
"Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing 'A Common Word' for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity."
Nayed was one of 138 Muslim scholars who last October issued an unprecedented appeal entitled "A Common Word" that urged a serious dialogue between Christians and Muslims on the basis of the shared values of love of God and neighbour. Dozens more scholars have since signed the appeal.
Protestant churches have mostly reacted in a positive way, but the Roman Catholic Church - which accounts for more than half of the world's two billion Christians - has been hesitant and agreed to dialogue only after some delay.
HIGH PROFILE BAPTISM
A "Common Word" delegation met Vatican officials early this month in Rome and agreed to a formal dialogue session in November during which they will meet Pope Benedict.
In his statement, issued after consulting several other signatories of the dialogue appeal, Nayed said Allam's conversion was his personal decision and asked whether he had been influenced by Catholic schools he attended as a child.
He said it was "sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse." Allam has been a fierce critic of radical Islam and defender of Israel.
Mohamed Yatim, commentator for the Moroccan daily Attajdid, called the high-profile baptism "a new provocation for the Islamic world and part of a trend that has intensified in recent years with the caricatures of the Prophet."
Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad printed by some European newspapers sparked widespread riots in the Muslim world in 2006.
In Algeria, deputy editor Mahmoud Belhimer of the popular El Khabar newspaper said Allam's conversion "could have been normal if he had not made anti-Islamic comments".
The Saudi daily al-Watan reported the baptism on its front page and described Allam as someone who "worked tirelessly to attack Islam" and was close to pro-Israel groups.
Rev Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church's top official for relations with Islam, also questioned the publicity surrounding Allam's conversion. "I don't understand why he wasn't baptised in his hometown by his local bishop," he said.