Vatican: Pope’s ‘angel’ comment to Abbas not meant to offend

After confusion, agencies issue correction, writing that Francis did not call Abbas an ‘angel of peace,’ but rather ‘a bit an angel of peace’

Pope Francis welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a private audience on May 16, 2015 in Vatican (AFP photo pool/Alberto Pizzoli)
Pope Francis welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a private audience on May 16, 2015 in Vatican (AFP photo pool/Alberto Pizzoli)

After several days of confusion over whether Pope Francis called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace” during a meeting Saturday, two news agencies that reported the quote clarified Tuesday that the pontiff cryptically said: “you are a bit an angel of peace.”

At the same time, a Vatican spokesman told Reuters that the comment was not intended “to offend anyone.”

The issue over what the pope said had aroused controversy among some critics who saw the remark as an undeserved vote of confidence for the Palestinian Authority president, while others questioned what exactly the pope had said.

News agencies AP, AFP and Reuters all originally reported that during a May 16 between Abbas and the pope, Pope Francis called the Palestinian leader “an angel of peace.”

Most of the 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.

Italian newspaper La Stampa however, reported that Francis merely expressed the hope that Abbas would become such an angel, while the Vatican said it could not confirm what was said.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press and Reuters issued a correction regarding Pope Francis’s disputed remark.

“The Associated Press erroneously omitted two words when quoting the pope. Francis told Abbas ‘you are a bit an angel of peace,’ not ‘you are an angel of peace.’ The original Italian quote was, ‘Lei e un po un angelo della pace,'” AP wrote.

In its report, Reuters also clarified that the pope had said “you are a bit an angel of peace” quoting “a reporter representing several news agencies at the meeting.”

The Vatican’s chief spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi told Reuters that he hadn’t heard the precise phrasing, but “It is clear that there was no intention to offend anyone.”

Lombardi, who was present when the pope hosted Abbas in the Apostolic Palace’s papal apartment, told The Times of Israel on Monday 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.

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 a bit of an angel of peace.”

Abbas’ visit came days after the Vatican finalized a bilateral treaty with the “state of Palestine” that made explicit its recognition of Palestinian statehood and 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 interreligious dialogue was needed to combat terrorism.

Israel didn’t comment on Francis’ “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.

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