Pope Francis promotes a Catholic-Muslim boxing match — in Vegas?

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Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

(RNS) No, really. That’s the word from semi-official Vatican media, not the Onion, the totally absurd satirical newspaper.

How did this get through the blanket coverage of all things Pope Francis?

Is it even true?

Apparently so, and it comes from Francis himself, who last week announced that there would be a boxing match in Las Vegas between a Catholic and a Muslim on May 7.

The news was slipped in at the end of a Feb. 4 Vatican Radio report on Francis announcing at a meeting with sports stars and students the day before that he was convening a second “Match for Peace,” an interreligious soccer match aimed at demonstrating “that we are capable of making peace with a game, with art,” as the pontiff put it.

The May 29 soccer match will be a reprise of the first Match for Peace, played in Rome in 2014. As Catholic News Agency explained, that match featured soccer players representing different religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Shintoism.

Coverage of last week’s announcement was understandably focused on the various soccer stars hanging out with the pontiff, such as Ronaldinho and Bryan Ruiz.

But at the end of the Vatican Radio report — which was also printed in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily — reporter Fausta Speranza noted that along with announcing the “Match for Peace,” the pope also announced that there would be “a boxing match between a Catholic and a Muslim in Las Vegas on May 7.”

Whoa. Pope Francis as Don King? (Without the distinctive hair, natch.)

There were no other details, such as who would be fighting, and no apparent follow-up — though we should have known something was up when earlier in the day the pontiff met with Mauricio Sulaiman Saldivar, president of the Mexico-based World Boxing Council.

The WBC chief gave the pope a green-and-gold “champion of faith” belt ahead of his visit this week to Mexico, as the photo below shows.

Pope Francis and Mauricio Sulaiman Saldivar, president of the World Boxing Council, at the Vatican on Feb. 3. Via the WBC website: http://wbcboxing.com/wbceng/news/6116-pope-francis-champion-of-faith

Pope Francis and Mauricio Sulaiman Saldivar, president of the World Boxing Council, at the Vatican on Feb. 3. Via the WBC website: http://wbcboxing.com/wbceng/news/6116-pope-francis-champion-of-faith

But nothing gets by the sharp-eyed Vaticanista (and persistent critic of Francis) Sandro Magister, who wrote a blog post titled: “Clash of civilizations in the ring in Las Vegas, Bergoglio referee.” (Bergoglio is the Argentine pope’s given name.)

“Incredible but true,” wrote a flabbergasted Magister.

Magister then suggested that this plan may in fact not be so surprising since Francis, despite his unceasing appeals for peace, is in fact a more pugilistic pontiff than one would think: Magister noted that in the aftermath of last year’s massacre at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Francis said insulting one’s faith or anything dear to people risked a provocation.

The pope added for emphasis — and with a laugh — that if his close aide, Alberto Gasbarri, insulted his mother “then a punch awaits him.”

Yet if this interreligious boxing match is for real, perhaps the model is not the pope’s own temper but rather the war-torn Central African Republic, which Francis visited last November to try to bring peace between the battling Christian and Muslim factions.

A few weeks later, an Agence France-Presse story detailed how some young Muslims and Christians have in fact found common ground inside the boxing ring.

“Boxing is a symbol of peace!”  said Roger Junior Loutomo, president of the nation’s boxing federation who came up with the idea and also umpires the fights.

“When two boxers fight, they embrace each other afterwards, no matter who is the winner. That’s the message that we want to get across,” he told AFP.

It’s a wonderful message. Will it also happen in Vegas? And will it stay in Vegas?

(David Gibson is a national correspondent for RNS)