Pope Francis praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting Saturday at the Vatican.
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The move underscored the Holy See’s warm relations with the Palestinians as it prepares to canonize two 19th century nuns from the region.
Francis made the compliment during an 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.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presides over a government formed in a union with Hamas, a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction which launched thousands of rockets at Israeli civilian targets last year.
Abbas has held on to power for ten years, even though he was only elected to a four-year term.
The Pope’s comment comes after the Vatican took the unprecedented step earlier in the week of officially acknowledging a non-existent Palestinian state in a bilateral treaty with the “state of Palestine.”
Israel didn’t comment on Francis’ “angel of peace” compliment but complained that Abbas was using the trip to score political points.
“It is regrettable that Mahmoud Abbas uses international forums to attack Israel and refrains from returning to negotiations which is the right way to implement a political vision and a solution of peace,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Israel earlier had expressed its “disappointment” that the Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine in the treaty.
Critics say that Vatican move undermines the potential for peace talks since it bolsters Palestinian goals of achieving unilateral statehood through means that bypass negotiations with Israel .