Pope Francis and the 'Angel of Peace' Scandal

Monday, June 01, 2015 |  Tsvi Sadan

A scandal recently erupted after media reports such as that by BBC's David Willey quoted Pope Francis as telling Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting on May 16: "You are an angel of peace." The Vatican was subsequently forced to issue a clarification that ultimately did little to alleviate anger over the Pope seemingly bestowing a completely unmerited and extravagant compliment upon the head of the PLO. 

"Pope Francis meant no offense to Israel by referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as being 'an angel of peace' and intended to encourage harmony between the two sides," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who further explained that "the word 'angel' in this context means 'messenger'." 

This anemic response that essentially confirmed Willey's report, along with the Vatican signing a formal treaty recognizing a Palestinian state, did very little to "encourage harmony."

Two days after that unfortunate phrase was uttered, Dror Eydar, a keen-eyed and forthright columnist, wrote an open letter to the Pope in the English edition of the daily Israel Hayom, in which he stated: "Your Holiness, establishing a Palestinian state on the Samarian hills in the heart of the historic Land of Israel is the latest attempt to nail the entire Jewish people to the cross." 

At least from Eydar's perspective, the Holy See's gesture of adorning Abbas with a Christian medal did very little to alleviate concerns about the intentions of the Vatican.

The excitement over the appearance of a new angel of peace, unlike any we have seen before, was given a new twist following this tweet by journalist Henruque Cymerman, who revealed that the Pope had sent him an email insisting that "whoever does not recognize the Jewish People and the State of Israel falls in antisemitism."

Yearning for some kind of sympathy from the Holy See, Avi Lewis responded to this tweet with a column in The Times of Israel which he entitled "Not recognizing Israel as Jewish is anti-Semitic, Pope says." Another website echoed the sentiment: "Historic declaration from Pope Francis, Anti-Zionism=Antisemitism." 

Unfortunately, however, this is not what the Pope wrote. In fact, if anything this tweet only reiterates the known fact that since 1948 the Vatican refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Slow reading the tweet quickly reveals that the Vatican is willing to recognize Israel as a state but not as a Jewish state. Good for the Vatican.

This is no different than the view held by Abbas, who is willing to recognize that Israel exists as a state, so long as it's not dubbed a "Jewish state." 

At the same time, it is difficult to understand how "not recognizing … the state of Israel" amounts to anti-Semitism. The only way I can understand this hazy statement is if threats to annihilate Israel include annihilating the Jews living in it. If this is the case, the Pope has said nothing of value and his email remains as evasive as his clarification that "angel" really means "messenger."

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