It turns out Pope Francis may not have called Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.” That was the quote reported by the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and the New York Times on Saturday night and led to my response here criticizing the pontiff for uttering such an egregious comment the following morning. Speaking the way about a man who was a Holocaust denier, a funder and organizer of terrorism, presides over a government and media that routinely foments hatred of Jews and Israel and who has repeatedly rejected peace would be outrageous. But if, as Tom Gross pointed out in the Weekly Standard, most of the Italian press reported that the pope actually said, “you could be an angel of peace,” that puts the exchange in a very different light. That led Gross to claim those mainstream media outlets that spread the original story did so because they are prejudiced against Israel and for the Palestinians. Gross is on to something there since media bias on the Middle East is real. But before we file this story away as merely another example of this problem, let’s put it in context. If the Times and other outlets that picked up the quote haven’t yet corrected their stories, it’s also because the event during which the pope spoke led them to think that’s what he meant. In this case, the fault may belong as much to the Vatican as to those reporters who spread the misquote.
As Gross noted, there is now good reason to think the pope did not call Abbas an “angel of peace.” The Italian press quoted the pope as saying, “Lei possa essere un angelo della pace” — which is translated as “you could be an angel of peace.” The pope giving Abbas a gift of a medallion that shows an angel of peace “destroying the bad spirit of war” (apparently a standard event for all visitors) and led to the pontiff saying that Abbas could do the same thing. That not only doesn’t sound bad, it could be spun as the pope challenging Abbas to do something that he has not done before. Even more, some have pointed that in addition to the medal, the pope also gave Abbas a copy of his 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, a document that included language that spoke of Judaism with respect. That could lead some to think the pope was actually sending the PA leader a critical message rather than a pat on the back. If true, that should generate applause from friends of Israel rather than criticism.
But there’s a good reason why the mainstream press has been slow to amend their original stories: the Vatican hasn’t sought a correction. As the Times of Israel pointed out today, neither the Vatican website nor its official news agency specified what the pope said to Abbas on Saturday. Nor did they note the widespread discrepancies in the coverage of that event with many publications making the claim that the pope praised Abbas and others using the more equivocal quote. Nor is that likely to happen.
As much as many of us are rightly predisposed to think that the AP or the New York Times willfully distorted the pope’s words, the Vatican doesn’t appear to be displeased about the misquote. Moreover, it’s hard to be too tough on reporters who got the quote wrong in that manner because praise of Abbas and the Palestinian cause seemed to be exactly the purpose of the visit and other events surrounding the canonization of two Arab nuns who lived in the country when it was under Ottoman rule during the 19th century.
The Vatican’s decision to join much of the rest of Europe and recognize Palestinian independence without first insisting that Abbas (and/or his Hamas rivals that rule Gaza) make peace with Israel was a signal not just of approval for the PA leader but of contempt for efforts to hold him accountable for his behavior. It is a good thing if Pope Francis did not actually call Abbas “an angel of peace.” But by approving the PA’s end run around the peace process at the United Nations, the pope has already done something that is morally equivalent to such an outrageous statement.
Were the pope really interested in challenging Abbas to become an angel of peace, he would not be authorizing the Vatican to conclude a treaty recognizing Palestine while its leaders refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The church had an opportunity to stand for peace by refusing to join the rush to recognize a government that has no control over the territory it claims and much of which is under the thumb of an Islamist terror group with which the PA has tried to forge an alliance. If the Vatican hasn’t asked for a correction about the misquote, it’s because it seems to be perfectly happy to let the world think the pope is an ardent backer of the PA.
So as much as we are right to criticize the Times, the AP and Agence France Pressse for their mistake, the real fault lies with a Vatican that staged a happy photo op with a leader with Abbas’s checkered past and present opposition to peace talks. No one who knows much about Abbas thinks he could ever be an angel of peace. But Pope Francis, a good man whose good intentions deserve our respect, could be one. But in order to do it, he would have to step back from a policy that aligns the Vatican with those seeking to unfairly pressure Israel and gives the PA a pass for rejecting peace.