What are Pope Francis' intentions in the Middle East?

America magazine explores in some detail the controversial remarks made by Pope Francis to President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine in a recent audience. Did Francis say that Abbas was an angel of peace, or did he say "may you be an angel of peace"?

Gerard O'Connell makes the case that he actually said, "You are a bit of an angel of peace."

Why are these small differences so important? We are involved in high-stakes diplomacy on this issue, and just as people are trying to figure out the foreign policy of the White House, they are also trying to understand what Pope Francis is up to in foreign affairs.

These remarks came shortly after the Vatican spoke of the "State of Palestine" in a recent agreement completed with Palestine on the church in the Palestinian territories. Yet the Vatican has been using this term since Palestine was recognized as an "observer state" by the United Nations' General Assembly in 2012. Has Pope Francis decided to be on the side of the Palestinians in this continuing dispute?

Perhaps the real comparison should be with Pope Francis' effort to bring the two peoples together in 2013 by inviting Abbas and Shimon Peres, president of Israel, to the Vatican for prayer and dialogue. As O'Connell points out, Francis cares about both Israel and Palestine and wants to do everything he can to help bring peace to these two countries.

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The pope is unencumbered by some of the niceties of protocol on these issues. The United States government, for example, is often limited in what it can say because of political lobbies, high-pressure groups, and the need to parse words. The pope says what he thinks and believes.

He is calling on both sides to take risks for peace. Abbas has done some of that. On the Israeli side in the past, Menachem Begin did so with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin did so (and lost his life as a result). Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister, has not.

Netanyahu has fostered the growth of settlements in occupied lands that have complicated progress for peace. During the recent election, he showed himself more interested in holding on to power than in working for meaningful progress on the critical issue that continues to bedevil the Middle East.

There is a peace deal to be had. It requires both sides to do some things they don't want to do. Yet the dividends for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people would be enormous. Leaders on both sides will absolutely need to be more than a bit of angels for peace. They have a resource in Pope Francis that will undoubtedly work with both sides to achieve a goal that will be a blessing for all humankind.


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