No, the pope did not call Abbas an “angel of peace”: How the NY Times, BBC and many others got it wrong

May 17, 2015


I attach a piece of mine published earlier today by the American magazine The Weekly Standard.

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.


Media Gets Pope’s Abbas Comments Wrong
By Tom Gross
The Weekly Standard (online)
May 17, 2015

If anyone needs further evidence of why the news agencies often can’t be trusted to report accurately on Israel and the Palestinians, and why major news outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC should stop repeating agency copy without verifying it, here is an important example from this weekend.

According to Italian and Spanish news outlets and according to the Vatican’s own website, Pope Francis told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he could be an angel of peace. “May you be an angel of peace,” he urged Abbas, effectively saying that if Abbas would take the decision to accept one of the peace offers that various Israeli prime ministers have made to him, or at least make a serious counter-offer, he could be an angel of peace. The pope did not say that Abbas – infamous for ordering the Munich Olympic massacre, among many other atrocities – was “an angel of peace.”

And yet the BBC and New York Times were among dozens of prominent news outlets that claimed he did.

The New York Times reports today (Page A11 of the New York print edition, May 17, 2015, under the headline: “At Vatican, Abbas Is Praised as ‘Angel of Peace’”):

“Mr. Abbas’s meeting with the pope ended with an exchange of gifts. Presenting Mr. Abbas with a medallion, the pope said it depicted an angel of peace ‘destroying the bad spirit of war.’ It was an appropriate gift, the pope added, since ‘you are an angel of peace’.”

And here is NBC, Fox, USA Today and the BBC saying the same thing.


Contrast the headlines in the New York Times with those in the Italian press. For example, the headline in the “Vatican Insider” section of Le Stampa is:

Pope embraces Abu Mazen and bids him to be an angel of peace

The original Italian is here.

Or as Il Giornale reports, the pope met Abbas, “asking him to be ‘an angel of peace.’”

Read almost any Italian news outlet and they say the same thing: “you could be an angel of peace” – “Lei possa essere un angelo della pace.”

Even the website of the Russian government broadcaster RT (Russia Today) – criticized by many for its bias – gets it right in its headline, but the New York Times and BBC didn’t: ‘May you be an angel of peace’: Pope Francis welcomes Mahmoud Abbas in Vatican. (This paragraph was not in the Weekly Standard version of this piece.).

As an astute Italian-speaking observer of the Middle East points out, all these English-speaking news media seem to have initially relied on the mistranslations of the world’s three biggest news agencies.

* AP: Pope Francis praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting Saturday at the Vatican that underscored the Holy See’s warm relations with the Palestinians. 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 an angel of peace.”

* AFP: “I thought of you because you are an angel of peace,” [Pope Francis] told Abbas.

* Reuters: Pope Francis gave Abbas a medallion representing an angel of peace, telling the Palestinian leader he thought of him “as an angel of peace.”


Meanwhile the website of the official Radio Vatican doesn’t even report on the Pope’s angels comment at all, apparently judging it unimportant.

Former Middle East reporters such as myself (“The Case of Reuters”) and Matti Friedman (who used to work at AP’s Jerusalem bureau) have long warned about the impartiality of the major news agencies coverage of the Middle East.

But then too often do reporters and editors at the New York Times, BBC, and elsewhere seem to be happy reporting on what they want to hear, rather than on what was actually said or done, when it comes to the Palestinians and Israel.

UPDATE: May 20, 2015

Following my piece and various blog posts by others on Sunday about the Pope and Palestinian President and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, in which I criticized AP and AFP for their portrayals of what the Pope said, both news agencies issued corrections, although each agency is now running with a different version of what was said. The Vatican and the Italian media report that AFP’s account – which mirrors my own – is now accurate:

AFP: Pope ‘angel of peace’ Abbas comment was encouragement: Vatican

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis’s reference to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as “an angel of peace” was meant as encouragement for him to pursue peace with Israel, the Vatican said Monday, after the words whipped up controversy on social media….

As the head of Rome’s Jewish community questioned why the pontiff would entrust the “angel of death” with bringing peace, some Twitter users pointed the finger at the media, with one wondering whether “it is the media and not the pope who called Abbas an angel of peace.”


In my piece on Sunday, I also criticized the New York Times. On Monday the Times ran a piece about the controversy in which they link back to my piece.

It is unusual for the Times to link to a piece which is critical of their own Mideast coverage; they clearly consider this issue important enough to have made this new piece, for a time, the lead story on the NY Times website.

(Unnoted by the New York Times and others, the Washington Post was one of those American papers which got it right first time round, reporting on Sunday that the Pope “encouraged him [Abbas] to commit to peace”.)


I have also been interviewed about the controversy by various news outlets, for example, here in the Washington Examiner.

And papers such as the Catholic Herald have weighed in: The Pope’s message to Mahmoud Abbas got lost in translation.

On Monday the Italian media were also critical of those English-language news outlets who misrepresented the Pope’s comments.

See for example: Pope Francis didn’t call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ‘angel of peace,’ Italian newspaper says.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.