In what would constitute a stunning rhetorical volte-face, Pope Francis reportedly walked back earlier statements praising Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and dubbed some of Israel’s detractors “anti-Semitic.”
In comments made to veteran Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman Thursday, Francis was quoted as saying that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel — and their right to exist — is guilty of anti-Semitism.”
Francis was also said to have backtracked on statements he was reportedly heard making earlier this month designating the visiting Abbas “a bit an angel of peace.”
The pope recalled telling Abbas in Italian that he hopes the Palestinian chief might one day become an angel of peace in the future, according to Cymerman — although ostensibly he has not yet reached that level.
The comments were sent by the Pope in writing to Cymerman along with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, one of Francis’s close interfaith colleagues, after the duo approached him following his meeting with Abbas, Channel 2 reported.
In an email we got from Pope Francis:"Whoever does not recognize the Jewish People and the State of Israel falls in antisemitism"
— Henrique Cymerman (@Henrique_B_C) May 28, 2015
Amid a media firestorm following the pontiff’s earlier comments, the Vatican had first clarified — saying he had not called Abbas “an angel of peace” but rather “a bit an angel of peace” — and then apologized, saying the remarks weren’t intended “to offend anyone.”
Francis made the compliment to Abbas during the traditional exchange of gifts at the end of an official audience in the Apostolic Palace.
Abbas’s visit came days after the Vatican finalized a bilateral treaty with the “state of Palestine” that made explicit its recognition of Palestinian statehood, drawing Israeli protests.
The Vatican said it had expressed “great satisfaction” over the new treaty during the talks with the Palestinian delegation. It said the pope, and later the Vatican secretary of state, also expressed hopes that direct peace talks with Israel would resume.
“To this end, the wish was reiterated that with the support of the international community, Israelis and Palestinians may take with determination courageous decisions to promote peace,” a Vatican statement said.
It added that inter-religious dialogue was needed to combat terrorism.
Israel didn’t comment on Francis’s “angel of peace” compliment but complained that Abbas was using the trip to score political points.
“It is regrettable that Mahmoud Abbas uses international forums to attack Israel and refrains from returning to negotiations which is the right way to implement a political vision and a solution of peace,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Israel earlier had expressed its “disappointment” that the Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine in the treaty, which covers the activities of the Catholic Church in Palestinian territory.