What Did Francis Really Say to Abbas?
Did Pope Francis really say to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “You are an angel of peace?” as The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Irish Times, La Nacion, Clarin, ANSA – the main Italian news agency, and America magazine reported at the time? Or did he tell him, “May you be an angel of peace,” as several other news outlets, including Italy’s Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, and Vatican Insider, wrote?
I can now report that there is incontrovertible evidence that at the Saturday meeting in the pope’s private library on May 16, Francis actually said to Abbas: “You are a bit of an angel of peace” (In Italian: “Lei é un po’ angelo della pace.”). CTV - the Vatican television’s recording of the actual meeting clarifies this beyond any shadow of doubt.
As is well known, a controversy has raged over recent days on this subject, questions have been raised as to the veracity of stories in various news outlets, including America, which reported that Francis told Abbas “You are an angel of peace.”
To enable the reader understand how such a controversy arose in the first place, it is necessary to explain the dynamics of what actually happened during and after the meeting between the Pope and the Palestinian President.
Following normal practice, two members from the print media of the Vatican’s press corps, together with some photographers and TV cameramen from the same body, were allowed to be present at the public parts of the audience, namely at its beginning, when the two leaders met, and at the end when the visiting delegation is presented to the Pope and gifts are exchanged. A similar number of media personnel from the Palestinian side were also present. The two print media reporters have the responsibility to brief all the other Vatican press corps after the audience.
The Associated Press reporter - Nicole Winfield, and The Irish Times correspondent-Paddy Agnew, were the print media representatives at the May 16 audience. They are both experienced, reliable reporters on the Pope and the Vatican, with a long record for accuracy. Both are fluent in Italian and are used to hearing Francis speak.
They were very close to the Pope and the President at the exchange of gifts and could hear well the exchange between the two leaders. Francis spoke in Italian, Abbas in Arabic and both used the Pope’s Arabic-speaking private secretary - Mgr. Gaid Yoannis Lahzi, as translator. Both reporters heard the Pope say, “You are... an angel of peace” (“Lei è..). Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., the Director of the Holy See’s Press Office, was some distance from the two leaders and admitted afterwards that he did not hear exactly what was said.
At the end of the audience, Winfield and Agnew returned to the Vatican press office and briefed the reporters waiting there. Some Italian reporters present, sensitive to the political significance of the Pope’s words, expressed surprise at Winfield’s declaration that Francis had told Abbas, “You are an angel of peace” (“Lei è un angelo della pace”) and challenged her. They asked if she was certain that Francis had actually said “You are” (“Lei è..) and not “May you be” (“Lei sia..). Winfield consulted her notes from the audience and confirmed that the pope had indeed said “You are…” Agnew agreed.
It should be emphasized here that neither Winfield nor Agnew used the expression “May you be..” (“Lei sia...”). This was introduced by Italian reporters in the press hall, none of whom were present at the audience.
After the briefing, ANSA – the main Italian news agency carried a news dispatch using the words “You are...,” but other Italian news outlets including Corriere della Sera, La Stampa and Vatican Insider, opted for “May you be..,” perhaps because they considered it more politically correct. This second version offered support to those who for one reason or another find it hard to accept, or indeed deny or reject, that Francis would tell Abbas “You are... an angel of peace.”
The differing reports, plus the strong feelings around the Israeli-Palestinian question, contributed to the controversy of recent days. It should be remembered that the discord came days after the Holy See and the State of Palestine reached a comprehensive agreement regulating the life of the Church in Palestinian territories. The use of the term ‘State of Palestine’ in what will be a legal agreement between the two sides got much visibility and upset Israel, even though the Holy See has been using that term ever since November 2012 when the UN General Assembly recognized Palestine as an "observer state.” In this context, the Pope’s compliment to Abbas was seen as adding to the Israeli unease.
Pressed by reporters for clarification, Father Lombardi, explained the significance of the gift given by Francis, but admitted that he had not heard exactly what was said. It is significant, perhaps, that in spite of the controversy, he has never denied the accuracy of the words “you are...”; words that are clearly audible in the Vatican TV’s footage.
It’s also interesting to note that CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), a media watchdog group that looks for errors and/or signs of anti-Israel or Anti-Semitic bias in reporting on the Middle East, which at first challenged the “You are…” version, now appears to acknowledge that the Pope said “You are...” But, it still asserts that at some other stage in the audience Francis also issued an exhortation (“May you be...). "It appears, however, the Pontiff did both,” it states. But it’s not clear on what grounds it is making the "May you be…" claim.
In the light of the Vatican TV’s footage, The Associated Press amended its earlier report from “You are an angel of peace” to the more accurate version, “You are a bit of an angel of peace.” America magazine is doing likewise. But this does not change in any substantial way the meaning of what Francis said. Indeed, he is already on public record calling Abbas “A man of peace,” a term he also used for the former Israeli President, Shimon Peres.
By way of conclusion, I should add that Pope Francis does not seek to be politically correct. He is authentic and says what he truly feels and thinks. This is true also when it comes to the delicate question of Israel and Palestine; he loves both peoples and his deepest wish is to do whatever he can to help them reach a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, and enjoy a secure future in two independent states.