Did the pope call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace”? Did he, less dramatically, express the hope that the PA leader would become an angel of peace? Or did Francis say something else when he presented Abbas, at their Vatican meeting on Saturday, with a medallion representing an angel of peace destroying the evil spirit of war?
Two days later, despite unequivocal reporting by three of the world’s most prominent news agencies that the pope called Abbas an “angel of peace,” and despite Italian newspaper La Stampa’s equally unequivocal report that Francis merely expressed the hope that Abbas would become such an angel, the Vatican’s own website and news agency have not specified. And this could well be because the Vatican is not sure itself.
The Vatican’s chief spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, who was present when the pope hosted Abbas in the Apostolic Palace’s papal apartment, told The Times of Israel that he “did not hear the exact words spoken.” This, Lombardi elaborated, was “because they were said in a very colloquial manner between the pope and the Palestinian president, who were in close proximity to one another.”
Still, Lombardi’s description of papal intent seemed to point away from the “Abbas is an angel,” and more toward the “hopefully Abbas will be an angel” explanation.
Lombardi said that Francis often presents visiting leaders with the large round bronze medallion representing an angel of peace in order to encourage a commitment to peace. “When the pope presents the medal to the president or head of state, he offers a few words of explanation of the gift as well as an invitation to a commitment to peace on the part of the recipient,” Lombardi said. “Each one of us must be for others and for the world an ‘angel of peace.’” The word angel in this context, said Lombardi, means messenger.
“In any case, the sense of encouraging a commitment to peace was very clear, and I believe that the very gift of the symbol of an angel of peace was made by the pope with this intention, as well as previous presentations of the same gift to presidents, not only to Abbas,” Lombardi continued.
Most international media coverage of the event, including by The Times of Israel, was based on reports by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse or Reuters, which all asserted that the pope called Abbas an angel of peace.
AP, for instance, reported: “Francis made the compliment during the traditional exchange of gifts at the end of an official audience in the Apostolic Palace. He presented Abbas with a medallion and explained that it represented the ‘angel of peace destroying the bad spirit of war.’ Francis said he thought the gift was appropriate since ‘you are an angel of peace.'”
Several bloggers, journalists and media analysts quickly countered that this was erroneous, with some calling it a mistranslation from the original Italian, and in some cases asserting that media bias was at play.
According to the English edition of the Vatican Insider section of Italian newspaper La Stampa, the pope told Abbas: “May the angel of peace destroy the evil spirit of war. I thought of you: may you be an angel of peace.”
Neither the website of the Vatican, nor that of its official news agency, had specified the exact wording as of Monday. And a press release merely noted “cordial discussions” about an agreement between the Vatican and the Palestinians. This accord, to be signed in the near future, is considered by many observers to amount to the Holy See’s official recognition of the “State of Palestine.”
“Attention then turned to the peace process with Israel, and the hope was expressed that direct negotiations between the Parties be resumed in order to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict,” the Vatican’s press release stated. “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.”
Abbas visited the Vatican over the weekend to attend the canonization of two Palestinian saints, Sisters Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas.