Two nuns that lived in 19th century Ottoman-era Palestine were elevated to sainthood at a Vatican Sunday Mass ceremony which was charged with political significance as well as religious belief.
Led by Pope Francis and attended by more than 2,000 pilgrims from across the region, religious officials said they hoped the canonization of the Catholic Church's first modern day Arabic-speaking saints would help draw much-needed attention to the plight of Palestinians and, more broadly, the suffering of Christians across the Middle East.
The two women were given saintly status after a Church investigative committee found they had both recently preformed miracles — a requirement for canonization — despite dying in 1878 and 1927.
Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, born in Jerusalem more than two centuries ago, is credited with saving the life of an electrocuted Palestinian in 2009 after his family prayed to her. Mariam Baouardy is said to have helped an Italian child to recover from serious illness after friends of his parents had a spiritual encounter with her during a pilgrimage to Israel.
Ghattas, who dedicated herself to God at just 15 years-old, gave much of her life to causes such as battling women's illiteracy and had several visions of the Virgin Mary. Baouardy, born to parents from Syria and Lebanon, established several convents, including one in India before an untimely death at age 35. Both women are also said to have suffered stigmata, the replication of wounds inflicted on Jesus Christ from nails and a crown of thorns when he was crucified.
Father Ibriham Sholami, a parish priest in Beit Jala, a town near Bethlehem, told VICE News that that the canonization was attended by more than a dozen Palestinian officials, both Christian and Muslim, and carried a "nice message" that the two faiths are united in a struggle against Israel's occupation.
"As these women [Ghattas and Baouardy] experienced suffering in their lives, all Palestinians suffer together with shared problems and hardship," he added.
Around 50,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories, mostly West Bank, with around 3,000 in Gaza. Numbers, however, have fallen dramatically in recent years. In Bethlehem, for example, Christians made up 85 percent of the population in 1947 but now are less than 20 percent. The decline is a result of several factors, including: a comparatively low birth rate, displacement during the founding of the Israeli state, and young people increasingly seeking opportunities and a better life abroad. The latter is a trend that the Church is keen to stop.
"Christians are integral to Palestine and it is important for Christians to stay here in the birthplace of Christ and not to leave," Father Sholami told VICE News. "We [Palestinians] are often seen as terrorists by the world but now the Catholic Church is saying we are saints and peaceful people…it's an incredibly powerful message."
Like all Palestinians living outside of Jerusalem, Christians are limited in their ability to travel to the Holy City by Israeli imposed restrictions. While special permits to cross checkpoints in and out of West Bank and Gaza are issued for religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, young men between 16 and 35 years old are often excluded by application criteria.
In an interview with the Vatican Insider website, Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said the canonization of the Palestinian saints would be a "spiritual highpoint for the region" and "rekindle the hope of our faithful in the Middle East."
Pope Francis has been outspoken on the suffering of Christians caught in the crossfire of conflict not just in Palestine but across the Middle East since he took office in 2013.
In his Easter address, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics prayed for the stilted peace process between Palestinians and Israelis to be resumed and called for peace in Yemen to halt the "roar of arms" in Syria and Iraq.
Both countries have suffered an exodus of Christians in recent decades. In Iraq, the number of Christians living in the country under Saddam Hussein has declined from around 1.5 million to between 200,000 and 500,000 currently. Tens of thousands fled last year after the militant group took Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
Meanwhile Syria, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, has suffered a significant but more gradual decline with the population dropping from around one-third of the country's total in the 1920s to around 10 percent by the time the civil war broke out in 2012.
Although their number is relatively small, persecution of the Middle East's Christian population has hit the headlines on several occasions in recent years. In 2013 Coptic Christians, who have suffered many waves of persecution over the centuries, faced a renewed round of violence when supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi turned their anger on the minority group that make up around ten percent of the country's population by burning Churches and attacking Christians.
Last month video footage of African Christians being executed on a picturesque beach in Libya by Islamic State militants sparked outrage, not only for the bloody killings, but also after it emerged that at least one of the men had been coerced into leaving Israel under program of deportation to third-party countries that human rights watch groups say places huge psychological duress on asylum seekers to leave.
Overall the troubled region's Christian population has declined by over 50 percent since 1900. Church officials, however, hope they can turn back the tide before it is too late.
"The Middle East without Christians would lose a fundamental part of its history and identity, it would no longer be the Middle East," Father Shalomi told VICE News. Few, however, have much faith in the region's leaders to end the persecution and violence. "We do not have hope in politicians, only in God," he added.
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