The Pope, Mahmoud Abbas, and the 'Angel of Peace'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (photo: Wikipedia)

According to Italian and Spanish media outlets, Pope Francis did not call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace”.

The BBC, the New York Times, NBC, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and many others all carried the story that the Holy Father had praised Abbas as “an angel of peace” during the president’s visit to the Vatican on Saturday. Many drew on reports from the three largest news agencies: AP, AFP and Reuters.

The news caused consternation in Israel. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman responded by alluding to the Palestinian leader’s unilateral moves against Israel and the way he uses international forums to attack the country. Others pointed out that Abbas is no angel of peace having long been accused of helping to finance the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 and his close ties to former PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

But according to La Stampa, after giving Abbas a medallion with the figure of the angel of peace (something the Pope has given many visiting presidents), the Pope told him: “The angel of peace destroys the evil spirit of war. I thought about you: may you be an angel of peace.” The article went on to say that Pope Francis did call Abbas a "man of peace" during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014, but he also gave the same label to former Israeli President Shimon Peres during the same visit. 

Il Giornale carried a report with the headline “Sia un angelo della pace”, meaning “Be an angel of peace.” And in another report, in TuttoperLei, the Pope is reported as saying: “Ho pensato a lei: che lei possa essere un angelo della pace”: “I have thought of you: that you could be an angel of peace.” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi today ruled out the possibility that the Pope had called Abbas an "angel of peace", according to Breitbart.

This appears to have been a simple translation error: the exchange will have been reported back by two or three journalists who were part of the press pool to other reporters in the Holy See press office. (It has since transpired that Italian journalists inserted the line "may you be" whereas the Pope actually said "you are a bit of an angel of peace". That's not quite the same as "an angel of peace" - it could even be considered slightly disparaging - but certainly closer to the original reports).

But this being a highly charged issue, and with a record of such misreporting in the past, many believed the reports were intentional.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, former Middle East reporter Tom Gross said he and others have “long warned about the impartiality of the major news agencies coverage of the Middle East."

“Too often”, he said, reporters and editors at the New York Times, BBC, and elsewhere “seem to be happy reporting on what they want to hear, rather than on what was actually said or done, when it comes to the Palestinians and Israel.”

Abbas was present yesterday in St. Peter's square when the Holy Father canonized two Palestinian Arab women, the first Palestinians to be canonized in modern times.