The Pope’s message to Mahmoud Abbas got lost in translation

Pope Francis meeting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican (CNS)

Pope Francis did not call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace” — at least that is what it seems when comparing the English language mainstream press to Italian and Spanish media outlets.

The BBC, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and many others all carried the story that the Holy Father had praised Abbas as “an angel of peace” during the president’s visit to the Vatican on Saturday. Most of them drew on reports from the three largest news agencies — AP, AFP and Reuters — which have enormous reach.

The news caused consternation in Israel. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman responded by alluding to the Palestinian leader’s actions that run contrary to peace. Others pointed out that Abbas is certainly no angel of peace having long been accused of helping to finance the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 and his close ties to former PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

But according to La Stampa, after giving Abbas a medallion with the figure of the angel of peace, the Pope told him: “The angel of peace destroys the evil spirit of war. I thought about you: may you be an angel of peace.” Other reports quoted the Pope as saying: “Ho pensato a lei: che lei possa essere un angelo della pace” — “I have thought of you: that you could be an angel of peace.”

La Stampa pointed out that Pope Francis did call Abbas a “man of peace” during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014, but he also gave the same label to former Israeli President Shimon Peres during the same visit.

This may have been a simple translation error: the exchange will have been reported back by two or three journalists who were part of the press pool to other reporters in the Holy See press office. They will have relayed the information in Italian, so native speakers might have been more likely to have reported it accurately.

But this being a highly charged issue, and with a record of such misreporting in the past, many believe the reports were intentional.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, former Middle East reporter Tom Gross said he and other reporters have long warned about biased reporting on the region. “Too often”, he said, 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.”

The misreporting is especially regrettable as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already felt sidelined by not being invited to last year’s peace summit in the Vatican Gardens. Peres represented Israel instead.