VATICAN CITY - Italy's most prominent Muslim commentator converted to Catholicism by being baptized by the pope at an Easter vigil last night.
Magdi Allam is the deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper and writes often on Muslim and Arab affairs. He was born in Egypt and has long spoken out against extremism and in favor of tolerance.
Pope Benedict XVI baptized seven adults during the service, which marks the period between Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus' crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, which marks his resurrection.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said anyone who chooses to become a Catholic of his or her own free will has the right to receive the sacrament.
Lombardi said the pope administers the sacrament "without making any 'difference of people,' that is, considering all equally important before the love of God and welcoming all in the community of the Church."
Benedict opened the lengthy nighttime service by blessing a white candle, which he then carried down the main aisle of the darkened St. Peter's Basilica. Slowly, the pews began to light up as his flame was shared with candles carried by the faithful, until the basilica was filled with candlelight and the main lights came on.
The baptism rite during the vigil service is part of the renewal Christians associate with Easter. Holy Week will culminate with a Mass this morning in St. Peter's Square.
There is no overarching Muslim law on conversion. But under a widespread interpretation of Islamic legal doctrine, converting from Islam is apostasy and punishable by death - though killings are rare.
Egypt's highest Islamic cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, wrote last year against the killing of apostates, saying there is no worldly retribution for Muslims who abandon their religion and that punishment would come in the afterlife.
Osama bin Laden accused the pope in a new audio message posted Wednesday of playing a "large and lengthy role" in a "new Crusade" against Islam that included the publication of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed that many Muslims found insulting.
Lombardi said Thursday that bin Laden's accusation was baseless.
He said Benedict repeatedly criticized the Mohammed cartoons, first published in some European newspapers in 2006 and republished by Danish papers in February.