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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis remains tight-lipped on the capture and conversion of an Italian aid worker to Islam despite his repeated rebukes against proselytism, even as a public outcry has erupted in Italy against the victim's "forced" conversion.
Silvia Romano, now 24, and a baptized Catholic, was serving as a volunteer in an orphanage in a village in Kenya when gunmen from Somalia's al-Shabaab Islamic terrorist organization abducted her in Nov. 2018 and held her captive for 18 months.
The aid worker, who was freed and returned to Rome on May 10 wearing a green Muslim jilbab, sparked outrage after news broke of her conversion to Islam during her captivity.
Romano assumed the name "Aisha" — one of Muhammad's wives, who, according to a hadith (Sahih Bukhari volume 5, book 58, number 234) was 6 years old when she was betrothed to Muhammad, himself in his 50s, and nine when the marriage was consummated.
"Any Christian or Westerner falling into the hands of al-Shabaab is likely to be executed — unless they convert to Islam," Dr. Martin Parsons, independent consultant on persecution, told Church Militant.
"According to the main Sharia texts of classical Islam, when someone is forced to convert to Islam it is still a legitimate conversion, and if the person subsequently returns to Christianity they are subject to the death penalty for apostasy," Parsons, an Islamic scholar, explained.
Lamenting Rome's silence on Romano's proselytism, Parsons, a former aid worker to Afghanistan and Pakistan said: "There is a major problem of abduction and forced conversion of Christian women in parts of the Islamic world, particularly Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria. Apart from the Nigerian Chibok schoolgirls, the appalling treatment experienced by these women has been almost entirely ignored by the western secular media."
Romano's conversion has fueled debate against forced conversion in many Muslim countries and the humanitarian worker has been deluged with hate mail even though she claims: "I converted to Islam. It was my free choice. I was treated well and I was not forced to marry [a Muslim]."
According to Italian media, "The fundamental point of the interrogation" by Italian intelligence, "is the chapter on conversion to Islam."
"It happened mid-captivity, when I asked to be able to read the Koran and I was satisfied," Romano insists, calling her conversion "spontaneous and not forced."
"They [the Muslim captors] explained their reasons and their culture to me. I also learned a little Arabic. My conversion process was slow and spontaneous," she claims.
But intelligence sources quoted by Il Fatto Quotidiano reveal that the conversion was because of "the psychological condition in which she found herself during the kidnapping."
"Romano's conversion could be a classic case of the Stockholm Syndrome," Parsons told Church Militant. People in "traumatic subordinate relationships" develop "false emotional bonds or paradoxical gratitude to their aggressor," and Stockholm Syndrome has been used to explain the rise of conversion to Islam after 9/11, he said, citing the The SAGE Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives.
Speaking to Church Militant, world-renowned Islamic academic Robert Spencer explained that Pope Francis refuses to address Romano's conversion because this might endanger Muslim-Christian dialogue.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has sternly reprimanded Catholics for proselytism, lambasting it as "solemn nonsense," "the strongest poison" and "a sinful attitude." Addressing fellow-Jesuits, the Holy Father stated: "Proselytizing is convincing, but it is all about membership and takes your freedom away."
"Although there are many stories of the abduction and forced conversion of Christian women in Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere, the Vatican has never taken any notice of this phenomenon, as to do so might endanger its efforts at 'dialogue' with Muslims," Spencer noted, asking: "But what good is such 'dialogue' if its only effect is to intimidate Christians into keeping silent about the persecution of their brethren?"
"Back in 2013, I was invited to speak at a Catholic conference in Worcester, Massachusetts. But the then-bishop of Worcester, Robert McManus, noted that I would be speaking about Muslim persecution of Christians and canceled my appearance, explaining that to discuss such matters might harm Muslim-Christian 'dialogue,'" Spencer said.
The author of the bestselling The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS blasted the Vatican for its silence on the proselytism of Christians in Islamic nations:
It is likely that Pope Francis and his cohorts do not recognize any anomaly in this. Their commitment to "dialogue" is paramount, and that is why they frown on Christians preaching the gospel to Muslims. Their commitment to this "dialogue" is also why they are silent about the forced conversion of Christians by Muslims. Their passion for a friendly relationship with Muslims has led them to adopt willingly the silent and subservient status that the Koran and Islamic law prescribe for Christians under Islamic rule.
"If Ms. Romano's conversion was coerced, she will have no one to defend her or to investigate the actual circumstances of the case, because Catholic leaders would consider that to do so would be 'Islamophobic,'" Spencer lamented.
"Pope Francis' silence on this likely stems from the same motive. Yet if this dialogue cannot and has not saved one Christian from persecution, what good is it?" he asked.
Many Italians are also furious with liberal Catholic clerics for sidestepping the issue of Romano's conversion.
Father Enrico Parazzoli, pastor of the Milan parish where Romano's family attends Mass, said he has come under fire for ringing his parish bells to celebrate Romano's release: "They told me that I had turned the bell tower into a minaret, and I received some criticisms from parishioners and friends."
"I have great respect for Silvia Romano's choice and I will not allow myself to judge it. Spending 18 months in captivity is something we can't even imagine. If, with a cold mind, when the hype of these days has subsided, you believe that Islam is the correct answer for your existence, I am only happy," Fr. Parazzoli said.
Asked about Romano's forced conversion, the priest commented: "Could the conversion have been forced? I do not know. The concept of conversion in Islamic culture is very different from the Christian one. In Islam, conversion concerns an orientation towards a system of rules, precepts and regulations that serve to live better."
In an interview with Umbria24, Cdl. Gualtiero Bassetti, head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, said "the return of this girl is the return of a young person who everyone feels in this moment is our daughter."
This is "a girl driven by strong religious but also humanitarian motives and this helped her to survive," he added.
Italian media reported that Premier Giuseppe Conte's leftwing government paid a ransom of over 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) to the militants for Romano's release. In an interview with La Repubblica, al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Dehere confirmed a ransom had been paid, but declined to say how much.
Critics hit back asking why Italy has "paid for a Muslim."