By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict led the world'sCatholics into Easter on Saturday at a Vatican service where hebaptized a Muslim-born convert who is one of Italy's mostfamous and controversial journalists.
The German-born pontiff, marking the third Easter season ofhis pontificate, began the service in the atrium of a darkenedSt Peter's Basilica where he carved the Greek letters Alpha andOmega on a large candle.
The basilica became a sea of flickering flames as thousandsof faithful inside lit candles before the lights were turned onin a ritual symbolizing the darkness in the world afterChrist's death and the light of the resurrection.
Easter, the most important day in the Church's liturgicalcalendar, commemorates Christ rising from the dead three daysafter he was crucified.
In his sermon, Benedict wove a connection between theresurrection of Christ and the sacrament of baptism, theinitiation rite of Christianity.
"...from the abyss of death he was able to rise to life.Now he raises us from death to true life. This is exactly whathappens in baptism," the pope said.
The pope traditionally baptizes newborns on January 1 andadult converts to Catholicism on Easter eve.
One of the seven adults he baptized on Saturday night wasMagdi Allam, 55, an Egyptian-born journalist who, as deputydirector of the leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, is oneof Italy's best-known intellectuals.
Allam, a fierce critic of Islamic extremism and a strongsupporter of Israel, is protected by a police escort because ofthreats he has received.
His conversion to Christianity was a well-kept secret,disclosed by the Vatican in a statement less than an hourbefore the Easter eve service started.
"For the Catholic Church, each person who asks to receivebaptism after a deep personal search, a fully free choice andadequate preparation, has a right to receive it," it said.
Allam defended the pope in 2006 when the pontiff made aspeech in Regensburg, Germany, that many Muslims perceived asdepicting Islam as a violent faith.
The Vatican statement announcing Allam was joiningCatholicism said all newcomers were "equally important beforeGod's love and welcome in the community of the Church".
Allam, who has been living in Italy for 35 years, has saidhe was never a very devout Muslim. Still, his conversion toChristianity came as a surprise.
"What amazes me is the high profile the Vatican has giventhis conversion," Yaha Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, vice-presidentof the Italian Islamic Religious Community, told Reuters.
The Easter eve service was the first of three at which thepope presides. On Sunday he will celebrate a mass and thendeliver his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and theworld) blessing and message.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robert Woodward)