Pope Francis Remarks to Abbas Spark Firestorm and Uncertainty

A recent meeting between Pope Francis and Mahmoud Abbas has prompted people to ask the following: Did the Pope really call Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority, an “angel of peace” or did he rather exhort him to be “an angel of peace?”

That question has figured in the flurry of high-profile media coverage about the encounter. A number of news outlets, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, have stated that the Pope called Abbas “an angel of peace” while other sources such as Vatican Insider dispute this account, asserting that he urged Abbas to be an angel of peace.

The context for public surprise about casting Abbas as angelic and peaceful warrants inclusion in the coverage. The papal characterization of the Palestinian leader contradicts what many people think about a man who has recently described Jews who visit the Temple Mount as a “herd of cattle,” who has praised the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini (who cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust) and has praised Dalal Mughrabi, a member of Fatah who participated in the Coastal Road Massacre of 1978 which resulted in the deaths of 38 Israelis including 13 children. He has also been credibly described as a Holocaust denier.

If on the other hand, Pope Francis merely exhorted Abbas to be an angel of peace, that’s still news, but not nearly as newsworthy as if he called him an angel of peace outright. It could be interpreted as the Pope calling on Abbas to abandon his previous hostility and to promote peace between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.

It appears, however, the Pontiff did both. Early in his meeting, he encouraged or exhorted Abbas to be an angel of peace; toward the end of his conversation with Abbas – as he gave him a gift – he called the man an “angel of peace.”

In fact, the Pope’s language is not much different from other similar phrasing he’s used previously. In 2014 Pope Francis said to Abbas in a Papal address in Bethlehem, “you are known as a man of peace.” (The AP apparently characterized this statement as follows “He pointedly called Abbas a ‘man of peace.'” (May 19, 2015 Update: This paragraph has been updated. It previously indicated that the address and the AP story represented two different uses of the same phrase, when it appears that the AP was a report on the Papal address.)

While there is a meaningful difference between “a man” and an “angel of peace,” it is clear that Pope Francis has attempted in rhetorical terms to portray Abbas as being a promoter of peace.

In light of the evidence currently available, it is not yet possible to claim that Pope Francis did not call Abbas an angel of peace outright or that media coverage of the Pontiff describing Abbas as an angel of peace is inaccurate. Media outlets related to the Vatican such as Radio Vatican or L’Osservatore Romano have covered the Pope’s meeting with Abbas but say nothing about what he called the President.

The Meeting

The meeting between Pope Francis and Abbas took place on Saturday May 16, 2015. Abbas was in the Vatican to attend the canonization ceremony for two nuns who served in the Galilee and Jerusalem during the 19th century.

At the meeting, Pope Francis gave Abbas a medallion and a copy of an apostolic exhortation he wrote in 2013. The exhortation, titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel) has positive statements regarding the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people and calls on leaders in Muslim-majority countries to “grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!” (Given the antisemitism in Palestinian society and the fact that Shariah law is enshrined in the Palestinian constitution, this document is significant.)

According to the New York Times, the Associated Press and other outlets, Pope Francis described Abbas “as an angel of peace.” This story prompted a significant amount of controversy because of Abbas’ previous statements about Jews on the Temple Mount and his past support for terrorism.

In response to the coverage of the New York Times and the Associated Press, a number of bloggers and media outlets stated that the Pope was misquoted and that instead of calling Abbas an angel of peace outright, merely exhorted him to be an angel of peace.

To make their case against the New York Times and the AP, they relied on Italian news sources that report that Pope Francis exhorted Abbas to be an angel of peace.

There was a substantial and undeniable ambiguity about what Pope Francis actually said. This ambiguity is fueled by the response from Papal spokesperson Father Frederico Lombardi who told the Times of Israel that he “did not hear the exact words spoken.”

A close look at the coverage of the meeting between the Pontiff and Abbas indicates that he likely did both: Exhort Abbas to be an angel of peace and refer to the Palestinian President directly as “an angel of peace.”

For example, the second most widely read newspaper in Italy, La Repubblica, published an article with the headline that reads: “Papa Francesco, venti minuti con Abu Mazen: ‘Lei sia un angelo della pace’” which translates into English as: “Pope Francis, twenty minutes with Abu Mazen: ‘may you be an angel of peace.’”

The text of the article itself, however, adds some more detail:

Il Papa ha invece donato al presidente palestinese una copia della Evangelii Gaudium e un medaglione con la figura dell’Angelo della Pace che “distrugge lo spirito cattivo della guerra – ha detto il pontefice, secondo quanto riferito dai presenti -. Ho pensato a te, che sei un angelo di pace”.

Which reads in English as follows:

The Pope has, for his part, donated to the Palestinian president a copy of Evangelii Gaudium and a medallion wi
th the figure of the Angel of Peace that “destroys the evil spirit of the war – said the pontiff, according to reports by those present, “I thought of you – an angel of peace.”

Ansa, the leading newswire service in Italy, provides the same quote La Repubblica put inside its article (“Ho pensato a te, che sei un angelo di pace.”)

Another paper, Corriere della Sera does not use this quote, but another, in its coverage of the meeting: (“’Lei sia un angelo della pace’” ha detto il pontefice nel salutare il presidente palestinese,” which translates into English as “”May you be an angel of peace” said the Pope on greeting thePalestinian president.”

In sum, much of the criticism directed at coverage of the Pontiff’s remarks is based on the assumption that he said one thing or the other. In light of what can be gleaned from various reports and of the Pontiff’s previous remarks about Abbas, it’s reasonable to conclude that he said both and that media outlets picked up on the most provocative interpretation.

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