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.
The pope often presents heads of states with a large bronze medallion representing an "angel of peace", and did so when he met Abbas on Saturday, when he used the phrase in remarks addressed to the president, according to journalists present.
His words -- which came just days after the Vatican riled Israel by saying it was preparing to sign its first accord with Palestine -- were pounced on on social media amid a dispute about the exact words he used.
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."
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi was unable to clarify, but said it was clear what the pope's meaning was, even if he could not verify his words.
"Each of us must be an angel of peace for others. I was present at the audience but I did not hear the pope's exact words," he said.
"The sense of encouragement seems clear to me, and this gift is presented to many presidents, not just Abbas," he said.