Big Ben preaches human rights

It would be hard to pick a more symbolic moment to join the church than during an Easter Vigil Mass -- the high point of the ancient Christian calendar.

Thus, the pope traditionally baptizes several new Catholics during this rite in St. Peter's Basilica. This year, one of the converts was Magdi Allam, a high-profile journalist and, perhaps, Italy's most famous "moderate" Muslim.

This caused a firestorm. One Muslim scholar active in interfaith talks condemned the "Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam ... in such a spectacular way." Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, wrote: "It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

This dramatic scene caught Vatican watchers by surprise.

When experts compare Pope Benedict XVI with his predecessor, one common observation is that Pope John Paul II was, because of his background as an actor, the master of grand gestures that soared above the usual dense papal prose. Meanwhile, the current pope -- a former professor who has written shelves of theological works -- has a reputation for being rather dry.

"If John Paul weren?t a pope, he would have been a movie star," said John L. Allen, Jr., the National Catholic Reporter's veteran Vatican correspondent and author of two books on the current pope. "If Benedict weren?t a pope, he would have been a university professor."

Nevertheless, it would "be a mistake to believe that Benedict is simply incapable of talking in pictures when he has a point he wants to make or that kind of flair for the just right dramatic gesture," said Allen, speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The question, of course, is whether Benedict will make any dramatic gestures during his upcoming visit to the Washington, D.C., and New York City. While politicos will insist on sifting his texts for any sound bites that might affect the White House race, Allen and another Vatican expert said it would be wiser to focus on Benedict's April 18 speech at the United Nations.

This is, after all, the official reason that he is coming to America. And, after that symbolic Easter baptism, the pope may choose to underline a passage in the UN's own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," states Article 18. "This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private. ..."

Benedict knows that the UN is, throughout 2008, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known for writing "Witness to Hope," a 992-page biography of John Paul II. For the pope and Vatican diplomats, this document represents "a kind of moral constitution for the world," built on a "common moral consensus" that is under attack.

Any defense of human rights, stressed Weigel, requires the use of a "word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way -- reciprocity. If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well."

Or to cite another example, a Christian who converts to Islam in Italy doesn't need to hire armed bodyguards. But this isn't true for Muslims who choose to convert to another faith while living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and other parts of the world -- even in some corners of Europe.

The key, said Allen, is that Benedict XVI isn't trying -- here's a sound bite -- to "launch a new crusade." Instead, the pope wants to encourage more Muslims to defend religious liberty, while continuing to reject any brand of secularism that denies the existence of universal, eternal, truths.

"In that struggle," said Allen, "Benedict believes that a more moderate, reformed form of Islam ought to be Christianity?s natural ally." In the pope's worldview, the "serious religious believers in the world ought to be the ones who hold the line against the dictatorship of relativism."