Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the two Palestinian nuns canonized Sunday as the first Arabic-speaking saints. The Catholic Church has declared other Arabic-speaking saints, including at least three from Lebanon.
JERUSALEM — The Palestinians on Sunday embraced the memory of their first Catholic saints after Pope Francis canonized two nuns born in the Holy Land more than a century ago.
Palestinian Christians and Muslims heralded as historic the elevation to sainthood of Sister Mariam Baouardy and Sister Marie Alphonsine Ghattas. The Arab Christians said it also brought a ray of hope to the shrinking Christian community here, which has lived for centuries in the land of Jesus’ birth.
There are now two more advocates in heaven to help pray for peace, they said.
“Many Christians are leaving or have question marks about their future here, but this gives us hope and shows us that things are possible despite difficulties,” said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser and former spokesman for the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
He said the two saints, who lived here during Ottoman times, did not have easy lives but “lived in a unique way, helping others, not only Christians.”
Relatives of the two women still live in the region, said Abunassar, and some members of the community were so excited that they took out loans to travel to Rome for the occasion.
More than 2,000 people attended the Mass on Sunday. Francis, who also canonized two other nuns, said their “example of mercy, charity and reconciliation” should inspire others. He also said that it should allow “Christians of these lands to look with hope to the future, following the path of solidarity and fraternal coexistence.”
In a speech before the event, which was also attended by representatives of the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the “two Palestinian saints add a very distinctive dimension to our national struggle, namely the moving humanitarian and spiritual principles that our land inspires us with.”
Born Jan. 5, 1846, in Ibillin, a small Galilee village, Baouardy was said to have had mystical powers. She offered herself to God at the tender age of 12, after, she said, the Virgin Mary appeared to her.
Moving to Egypt and then to France, Baouardy received the religious name Sister Mariam of Jesus Crucified in 1867. She later spent time in India before returning to the Holy Land and founding the Carmelite convent in Bethlehem in 1875, opposite the Church of the Nativity, which marks the site where the Bible and tradition say Jesus was born.
Baouardy died at 33 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
Ghattas was born Sultana on Oct. 4, 1843, to a Palestinian family in Jerusalem. Her father, Daniel Ghattas, was a carpenter and her mother, Catherine Youssef, a housewife. At 17, she joined the congregation of St. Joseph of the Apparition and took the religious name Sister Marie Alphonsine.
She said that one night the Virgin Mary appeared to her and urged her to start the Congregation of Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, which she founded in 1883. Later she traveled the region teaching and counseling. She died in Jerusalem in 1927 and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
In an article published last week by the Palestinian news agency Maan, Palestinian Ambassador to the Holy See Issa Kassissieh said the two women were intrinsically linked to the “struggle of the Palestinian people to be on its own land.”
“When celebrating the canonization of Marie-Alphonsine and Mariam Baouardy, we are celebrating the Palestinian commitment to justice, freedom, love and peace,” he said.
During a meeting Sunday at the Vatican, Francis presented Abbas with a bronze medal representing an angel of peace and encouraged him to commit to peace, a statement from the Holy See said.
This comes just days after the Vatican signed a treaty reaffirming Palestinian statehood, a move that Israel said would do little to achieve peace in the region.
Francis visited the Palestinian territories and Israel last year and a few weeks later prayed for peace at a special meeting in Rome with Abbas and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres.