By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict led the world's Catholics into Easter on Saturday at a Vatican service where he baptized a Muslim-born convert who is one of Italy's most famous and controversial journalists.
The German-born pontiff, marking the third Easter season of his pontificate, began the service in the atrium of a darkened St Peter's Basilica where he carved the Greek letters Alpha and Omega on a large candle.
The basilica became a sea of flickering flames as thousands of faithful inside lit candles before the lights were turned on in a ritual symbolizing the darkness in the world after Christ's death and the light of the resurrection.
Easter, the most important day in the Church's liturgical calendar, commemorates Christ rising from the dead three days after he was crucified.
In his sermon, Benedict wove a connection between the resurrection of Christ and the sacrament of baptism, the initiation 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 what happens in baptism," the pope said.
The pope traditionally baptizes newborns on January 1 and adult converts to Catholicism on Easter eve.One of the seven adults he baptized on Saturday night was Magdi Allam, 55, an Egyptian-born journalist who, as deputy director of the leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, is one of Italy's best-known intellectuals.
Allam, a fierce critic of Islamic extremism and a strong supporter of Israel, is protected by a police escort because of threats he has received.
His conversion to Christianity was a well-kept secret, disclosed by the Vatican in a statement less than an hour before the Easter eve service started.
"For the Catholic Church, each person who asks to receive baptism after a deep personal search, a fully free choice and adequate preparation, has a right to receive it," it said.
Allam defended the pope in 2006 when the pontiff made a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that many Muslims perceived as depicting Islam as a violent faith.
The Vatican statement announcing Allam was joining Catholicism said all newcomers were "equally important before God's love and welcome in the community of the Church".
Allam, who has been living in Italy for 35 years, has said he was never a very devout Muslim. Still, his conversion to Christianity came as a surprise.
"What amazes me is the high profile the Vatican has given this conversion," Yaha Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, vice-president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, told Reuters.
The Easter eve service was the first of three at which the pope presides. On Sunday he will celebrate a mass and then deliver his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message.