Pope Francis to canonise Palestinian nuns

Originally at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32757345

Now for the first time, Palestinian Catholics will also venerate two saints who lived in the Holy Land in modern times and were native Arabic speakers.

Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Bawardy are among four 19th Century nuns who are being canonised by Pope Francis in Rome on Sunday.

At the house of Marie Alphonsine in Ein Karem, Sister Agatha shows around a large tour group of Christian women from Nazareth, in northern Israel.

“Every week parishioners come here,” she tells me. “They’re very proud of her. She was Palestinian and she started her work here in Palestine.

“She was our first teacher, the first one to educate Arab girls and women. Now, we’re continuing her mission and we’re famous because of our students.”

Pilgrims pray in chapel dedicated to Mariam Bawardy
International pilgrims come to pray in chapel dedicated to Mariam Bawardy

Today, the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters, co-founded by Marie Alphonsine, runs many kindergartens and schools across the wider region.

At the Carmel Convent in Bethlehem, flags and banners have been put up to celebrate the canonisation of Mariam Bawardy, born in the Galilee.

A mystic, she is said to have carried out many miracles and to have experienced stigmata – wounds representing those suffered by Jesus on the cross.

“She’s special because she was very simple, very humble,” says Sister Feryal. “This is really the way for being a saint.”

“Mariam was known as ‘the little Arab’ but she always said, ‘I am the little nothing.’ This was her way and she teaches us to follow her in this simplicity.”

Both nuns lived through tough conditions, overcoming male dominance in Ottoman society, poverty and ill-health while helping others.

A sister prays in front of relics of Marie Alphonsine Ghattas at the Mamilla monastery in Jerusalem on May 12, 2015, a few days ahead of the canonisation of the Palestinian nun in Rome
The two nuns will be the first modern-day Palestinians to achieve sainthood

They are said to have received apparitions of the Virgin Mary and remained in close communication with her.

By granting these women sainthood, the Church is celebrating their good works but it also showing support for Christians in the birthplace of their religion.

It is one year since Pope Francis visited the Holy Land, praying for peace at the high concrete wall in Bethlehem, part of Israel’s controversial separation barrier.

Thousands of the faithful from the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel turned out to greet him and attend an open-air mass.

The total number of Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories has declined to less than 2% of the population.

This is partly because of growing Jewish and Muslim populations, but also because of the conflict and the chance of better opportunities abroad.

This week the Vatican officially recognised the State of Palestine in a new treaty, to be signed in the coming months.

Students of the Rosary Sisters girls" secondary school in Jerusalem"s northern neighborhood of Beit Hanina pose with portraits of Sister Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, on May 12, 2015
Students at a Jerusalem school have been preparing for the event

“I do not see the Pope taking this Palestinian-Israeli question off his agenda. It will remain there,” comments Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent and associate editor of America magazine.

“He is anxious to encourage the two peoples, to push and prod them to somehow make initiatives, so they take the next step. He’s trying to use his moral authority to get them to come together.”

Palestinian church leaders and politicians, including the Muslim President, Mahmoud Abbas, will attend Sunday’s consecration mass in Rome. Israel is sending a diplomatic delegation.

There will also be bishops from Jordan, Lebanon, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Cyprus.

The hope is that this will send a message of hope for the wider Middle East, where Christians are fleeing war and persecution.

“Everyone is interested in this event to celebrate those two new heroes in a special way,” says Father Jamal Khadr, head of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala.

“They are heroes of peace, of education, of justice and fraternity with others. We need those role models in our lives when we suffer from so much violence and hatred.”

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