Pope Francis on Sunday canonized two nuns from what was 19th century Palestine in hopes of encouraging Christians across the Middle East who are facing a wave of persecution from Islamic extremists.
Sisters Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas were among four nuns who were made saints at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and an estimated 2,000 pilgrims from the region, some waving Palestinian flags, were on hand for the canonization of the first saints from the Holy Land since the early years of Christianity.
The canonization came a day after Francis called Abbas “an angel of peace,” comparing him to a medallion he presented which represents a figure that “destroys the bad spirit of war.”
Church officials are holding up the new saints as a sign of hope and encouragement for all Christians in the Mideast at a time when violent persecution and discrimination have driven many Christians from the region.
The two nuns are the first figures from Palestine to be canonized by the Vatican as saints in the modern era.
Ghattas, born in Jerusalem in 1847, opened girls’ schools, fought female illiteracy, and co-founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Rosary. The order today boasts dozens of centers all over the Middle East, from Egypt to Syria, that operate kindergartens, homes for the elderly, medical clinics and guest houses.
Bawardy was a mystic born in 1843 in the village of Ibilin in what is now the Galilee region of northern Israel. She is said to have received the “stigmata” — bleeding wounds like those that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross — and died at the age of 33 in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where she founded a Carmelite order monastery that still exists.
For sainthood, the candidate must have lived a holy life, as determined by the Catholic Church, and must usually have at least two miracles to their name, attributable to prayers made to them posthumously.
A miracle that led to Ghattas’s canonization was the resuscitation of a Palestinian engineer in 2009, who was electrocuted and suffered a heart attack, but regained consciousness two days later after relatives prayed for her intercession.
During her life, Ghattas is said to have seen the Virgin Mary in several apparitions, and nuns talk of miracles she performed then, including saving a girl who had fallen down a well by tossing her rosary into the water.
Orphaned at a young age and illiterate, Bawardy had her throat slit by an angry would-be suitor when she refused to convert to Islam, but a mysterious “nun in blue” is said to have saved her life, the Carmelite order’s website says.
She travelled to France to become a nun, then to India to help set up a monastery there, and eventually settled in Bethlehem.
The canonization of a third Palestinian — a Salesian monk — is still under review by the Church.
In addition to the Palestinian delegation on hand for the Mass, Israel sent a delegation headed by its ambassador to the Holy See, while France, Italy and Jordan also sent official delegations.
The canonization comes amid controversy of the Vatican’s recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a full-fledged state during the pope’s meetings last week with Abbas in a new treaty between the Holy See and the Muqata.
The recognition drew the ire of the Israeli government in a statement last week.
“Israel heard with disappointment the decision of the Holy See to agree a final formulation of an agreement with the Palestinians including the use of the term ‘Palestinian State.’
“Such a development does not further the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct bilateral negotiations. Israel will study the agreement and consider its next step.”
The treaty, which was finalized Wednesday but still has to be signed, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic relations from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.
A bilateral commission is putting the final touches to the agreement, on the Catholic Church’s activities in Palestine, which then “will be submitted to the respective authorities for approval ahead of setting a debate in the near future for the signing,” the Vatican said on Wednesday.
Some observers speculated that the agreement could be signed during Abbas’s visit.
In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Although they have not experienced the violent persecution that has decimated Christian communities elsewhere in the region, the population has gradually shrunk over the decades as Christians have fled conflict or sought better opportunities abroad.
Francis has raised the plight of Christians across the Middle East as a cause for concern, denouncing how the Islamic State group has violently driven thousands of religious minorities from their homes in Syria and Iraq.