(CNN) — Just a few days after angering Israeli advocates by brokering a treaty with the “state of Palestine,” Pope Francis again came under fire for reportedly referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting Saturday at the Vatican.
It is unclear, though, whether Francis was praising Abbas’ angelic attributes or just urging him to forge a long-stalled agreement with the Israelis.
Abbas visited the Vatican this weekend to witness the canonization of two Palestinian nuns, a political and religious gesture meant to highlight the deep history and present troubles of Christians in the Holy Land.
According to the Vatican, Abbas thanked Francis for the canonizations and the two held a cordial discussion about the turmoil in the Middle East and the need to combat terrorism. There was no mention of angels in the Vatican Radio report.
News outlets including the BBC, The New York Times and The Associated Press form the frontline of the “Abbas= angel” camp, quoting the Pope’s remarks in a raft of stories on Sunday. This, in turn, led to a round of columns, the gist being: Sorry, Pope, Abbas is no angel.
“Such hyperbole may be par for the course in exchanges between heads of state but for the Pope to say something that is so patently false damages his credibility,” wrote Jonathan Tobin in Commentary.
Italian media, though, tell a different story.
According to La Stampa, a newspaper known for its sharp Vatican coverage, Francis presented Abbas with a medallion and said: “May the angel of peace destroy the evil spirit of war. I thought of you: May you be an angel of peace.”
After fielding calls from the media, the Vatican on Sunday released a short statement about angel-gate.
“One of the gifts that the Pope often presents to visiting presidents is a large, round, bronze medal by a contemporary artist that represents an ‘angel of peace,’ ” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“When the Pope presents the medal to the president or head of state, he offers a few words of explanation of the gift as well as an invitation to a commitment to peace on the part of the recipient. Each one of us must be for others and for the world an ‘angel of peace.'”
Lombardi said he was in the room when Abbas and Francis met, but didn’t hear exactly what was said. He also noted that “angel” in Greek means “messenger,” as in the winged creatures that carried tidings from God to humans. According the Bible, the angels often had to shout to be heard.