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Pope Francis Targeted by ‘Fake News’ Amid Tensions With Conservative Catholics

ROME — A fake front page of the Vatican’s official newspaper was sent to cardinals and bishops by an anonymous source this week as part of what appears to be an ongoing campaign to undermine Pope Francis.

The page, obtained by NBC News, purports to be the front of the Osservatore Romano and contains a spoof interview with the 80-year-old pontiff under the headline in Italian, “He answered!”

Image: Fake front cover of L'Osservatore Romano
This image, obtained by NBC News, shows a fake front cover of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

In the imaginary interview, the pope addresses a controversial request from four cardinals to clarify his position on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion. The pope supposedly answers “yes and no” to the same question — casting doubt over whether he has a clear view on the issue.

Last year, four prominent cardinals wrote to Francis requesting clarification on his teachings on family and moral issues. The cardinals took the unusual step of making their request public, as the pope did not reply.

The fake news story comes a week after walls around Rome were festooned with illegal posters criticizing some of the pope’s recent actions.

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The posters showed an image of a stern-looking Francis above the question: "Eh, Francis, you've commissioned congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, you've ignored cardinals ... but where's your mercy?"

The posters took issue with Francis’ recent actions which affected conservative Catholic groups. Police launched an investigation using closed-circuit cameras into the conservative circles believed responsible, the ANSA news agency said.

Image: A passerby lifts a paper sheet covering an anti-Pope Francis poster to read it, in central Rome, Italy, Feb. 4, 2017.
A passerby lifts a paper sheet covering an anti-Pope Francis poster in central Rome on Feb. 4, 2017. Beatrice Larco / AP

It is unclear whether the fake news story is being investigated as well.

The incidents underscore the tensions between Francis and some conservative elements of the Catholic Church. The pope’s calls for a less strict church that is more compassionate toward “imperfect” members, such as those who divorced and remarried, has not been welcomed by some conservative members.

“Francis is not the first pontiff to fall victim of rumors and fabrications. Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were all unfairly criticized at some stage. What’s new here is the way the rumors are spread. It’s a sign of the times,” Antonio Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of the Jesuit newspaper Civiltà Cattolica, told NBC News.

“This is the proof that the pope has enemies and his role as a moral and religious leader is unsettling to some,” he added.

A source at the Vatican who spoke on the condition of anonymity, however, downplayed the latest stunt as harmless: “It wasn’t done in bad taste. It’s quite funny, actually. We are not worried.”

This is not the first time Francis has been the subject of inaccurate reports. In 2015, the Quotidiano Nazionale newspaper reported, wrongly, that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor right before a much anticipated and debated Synod on the Family.

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Last Sunday, during his weekly prayer in St. Peter's Square, Francis told the faithful that Christians should turn away from "the polluting germs of selfishness, envy and malicious gossip."

But, as Francis suggested to Spadaro in an interview to be published Saturday in Civiltà Cattolica, he is not losing sleep over it.

“There is corruption in the Vatican, but I am at peace, if there is a problem, I write a note to St. Joseph and put it under a statue I have in my room," Francis said. "This is why I sleep well at night: it is God’s grace."