Over the weekend, the Associated Press, along with virtually every other major media outlet in America, reported that Pope Francis declared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be an “angel of peace.” The remark prompted outrage because Abbas’ past conduct, and political corruption, did not in any way qualify him for such a lofty description.
American media outlets have misquoted Pope Francis before, almost invariably in ways that transform his remarks into full-throated endorsement of various left-wing agenda items. This might just be the mother of all such suspiciously political misquotes, because according to several Italian-speaking sources, the Pope did not hail Abbas as an “angel of peace” — he called on Abbas to meet that standard and act like one.
Here is how the Pope’s comments are presented by the Vatican Insider:
As is tradition with heads of State or of government, Francis presented presented a gift to the Palestinian leader, commenting: “May the angel of peace destroy the evil spirit of war. I thought of you: may you be an angel of peace.”
Pope Francis had called Abu Mazen a “man of peace” when he visited Bethlehem in May 2014, just as he called the then Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, a “man of peace” during his subsequent visit to Jerusalem. The Argentinian Pope had then invited both leaders to a prayer vigil for peace int he Vatican Gardens which took place on 8 June that year and was also attended by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
Upon his arrival in the Sala del Tronetto (“little throne room”) of the Vatican Apostolic Palace opposite the papal library, Abu Mazen greeted the Pope with a light-hearted joke: “You look younger”. The Pope gestured to him to enter the library before him and the Palestinian leader finally did so after trying to let the Pope enter first.
Now, it is still fair to wonder if “Abu Mazen” — an alias used by Abbas — is really a good candidate for those Angel of Peace wings, in any foreseeable future. Among other things, great men of peace generally don’t have aliases, or maintain separate public identities so they can talk out of a different side of their mouths when addressing hateful domestic audiences.
I thought the original translation of the Pope actively saluting Abbas as a cherub of serene happiness was intended as a call for the Palestinian leader to step up his game, part of a long Western tradition of flattering the Palestinians into embracing “moderation” and turning their backs on bloodthirsty gangsters like Hamas. This translation makes that intention explicit, and is an order of magnitude less objectionable than rewriting Abbas’ checkered history. If anyone should be given latitude to address the most dubious character and express the hope that he’ll rise to meet divine standards, it’s the Pope.
In any event, the Pope has a right to expect such an important and controversial pronouncement will be relayed properly to audiences around the world. This was not a trivial mistake. How could any translator, or news headline writer, possibly fail to foresee the response those “Pope Francis Hails Abbas as an Angel of Peace” headlines would generate? Are they simply so deep in the tank for the Palestinians that they didn’t realize such a pronouncement would be controversial?