JERUSALEM – The Holy Land's Christians are excitedly preparing for next week's canonization of two Arab nuns, bringing some joy to a tiny community that has had little to celebrate in recent years.
Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, who lived in what was Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the 19th century, will be the first from the region to receive sainthood since the early days of Christianity. They will also be the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints.
The nuns were born in Jerusalem and a town in what is now Israel, but come from an Arabic-speaking Christian community that has mainly identified itself as Palestinian for many decades. President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, will attend the canonization festivities at the Vatican on May 17, said Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser on Christian affairs to the Palestinian leader.
"This canonization has a meaning for the whole Palestinian nation," al-Bandak said. "It's a very important thing for Palestinians, whether they're Muslim or Christian."
In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians are a tiny minority, making 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. Pope Francis has raised the plight of Christians across the Middle East as a cause for concern.
At such a sensitive time for the region's Christians, celebrations are in full swing. Worshippers filled the church of the Rosary Sisters Mamilla Monastery in Jerusalem on Saturday, kneeling down in front of the tomb of Ghattas and holding prayer beads during a solemn ceremony held for the two women. The event opened a period of special prayers and masses that will continue throughout the summer in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
Books, films, songs and hymns are already hailing the canonization, which local Church officials say is historic.
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 is said to have 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.
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.
The two nuns lived under difficult conditions, facing poverty and sickness while helping those in need. Both are said to have received apparitions by the Virgin Mary and to have performed miracles -- a requirement for Catholic sainthood.
Ghattas is said to have saved an electrician who was badly hurt in a work accident in 2009, more than a century after her death. Doctors said he would die or suffer permanent brain damage. But after his family and community prayed for Ghattas' intercession, he is said to have awoken from a coma and fully recovered.
Mariam Bawardi is said to have saved a newborn from Sicily who was born with a heart defect. The baby was hospitalized and given almost no chance of surviving. Yet after prayers were said for the baby, he defied all odds and fully recovered without surgery.
Sister Alphonsina, a Jordanian nun and member of the Sisters of the Rosary Congregation near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, said that the nuns' canonization should inspire others to lead more spiritual lives.
"We talk a lot about political uprising and I hear people calling for a political uprising, but we as Christians. first need a spiritual uprising," she said. "Marie Alphonsine and Mariam Bawardy ... started the torch of this spiritual uprising."
Israel, for its part, has taken a more low-key approach, but will also join Sunday's festivities. The Foreign Ministry said its ambassador to the Vatican and a government official responsible for the country's Christian minority will both attend the canonization.
By granting the women sainthood, the Church is also trying to bolster their work in women's education and with the poor.
The Very Rev. Mother Iness al-Yacoubi, the superior general of the Rosary Sisters of Jerusalem, said she hopes the canonization will encourage more women to become nuns and help Christians in the Middle East "to strengthen, to maintain our presence here."