- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

In a ceremony fraught with diplomatic and security overtones, Pope Francis on Sunday canonized the first two saints from the modern region of Palestine at a consecration mass in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

The move was long in the works, but comes just days after the Vatican angered Israel by upgrading its diplomatic ties with the Palestinians, and also comes amid intensifying concerns among Catholic leaders about the future of the Christian faith in its Middle East birthplace.

Church officials said the two nuns will be the first figures from the Middle East to be recognized as saints since the early days of Christianity. They will also be the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints.

In his homily, the pontiff emphasized the importance of following the example of “succeeding generations” of Christians as a path to holiness.

While many canonized saints in the Church originate from the Holy Land, such as St. Mary and St. Peter, the first pope, Sisters Maria Baouardy and Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas will be the first “modern Palestinian saints,” according to Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who called the canonization “a spiritual high point for the inhabitants of the Holy Land.”

Among those attending the Vatican canonization was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Pope Francis called “an angel of peace” in a warm personal meeting Saturday. The Vatican last week strongly endorsed the concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian clash and drew Israeli ire by formally acknowledging Mr. Abbas’ government as a “Palestinian state.”

The sectarian civil wars in Iraq and Syria, coupled with the rise of the jihadi Islamic State movement, have sharpened fears about the future of ancient Christian minority communities across the region, and some Christian leaders said the newly canonized Palestinian saints could serve as a symbol of hope and support for peace in a region long troubled by conflict and religious persecution.

In the land where Jesus was born and preached, Christians now make up less that 2 percent of the populations of Israel and the Palestinian lands, and Christians have been emigrating in large numbers from countries across the region in recent decades in the face of growing violence and repression.

“I am sure they follow our situation from heaven and will continue to intercede for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land,” said Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem, who also called their intercession “strong and efficacious.” Sister Ferial of the Infant Jesus, a nun at the convent that Baouardy founded in Bethlehem, said that the news of the canonization “was like putting a light in a dark place.”

The canonization will be a “blessing from heaven on our land, devastated by violence yet persevering in our longing for peace and justice,” said Patriarch Twal in a pastoral letter last month. The patriarch said in an interview that it is further proof that “Pope Francis constantly looks toward our region. He has repeatedly deplored the unprecedented atrocities against Christians and minorities in the Middle East, expressing his deep concern.”

Patriarch Twal traveled with a group from Palestine with Mr. Abbas, who attended the consecration mass a day after a private audience with Pope Francis on Saturday.

The Vatican-Palestinian treaty, which deals with Catholic parishes and organizations in Palestinian-controlled areas, is the first official document to formally change the Holy See’s acknowledgment of Mr. Abbas’ government from “The Palestine Liberation Organization” to the “State of Palestine,” though Church officials have unofficially referred to Palestine as a state for over a year.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry in a statement condemned the move, which it said could actually make a peace deal more difficult by encouraging the Palestinians to move farther away from direct talks with Israel.

“This move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations,” the ministry said, according to a text of the message obtained by The Associated Press. “Israel will study the agreement and will consider its steps accordingly.”

Vatican Foreign Minister Monsignor Antoine Camilleri insisted the move reflected the Church’s long-standing position on the dispute and was not meant to be politically provocative.

Both the new saints are nuns who helped spread the Gospel by founding new organizations.

Baouardy was a Melchite Greek Catholic who was born in a village near Nazareth in 1846. Despite being illiterate, she joined a religious order in France and founded several convents in India before returning to the Holy Land later in life. She died in Bethlehem in 1878.

Ghattas was born in Jerusalem in 1843, joined an order at the age of 15 and founded the Congregation of Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, also known as the Rosary Sisters. She was beatified and thereby declared “blessed” in 2009 by Cardinal Angelo Amato on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. Bouardy was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983.

Sunday’s Mass is accompanied by simultaneous and subsequent services and celebrations in Rome, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Marj al Hamam, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Haifa.

In order to be canonized as saints in the Catholic Church, a deceased person with the “fame of sanctity” or “fame of martyrdom” must have their cause for sainthood evaluated by several layers of church investigators, theologians and medical doctors. Factors considered in the confirmation process include such things as “purity of doctrine” and whether or not a miracle had come about as the result of the saint’s intercession.

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