World

Palestinian Christians welcome canonization of Arabic-speaking saints

The canonization of two Arabic-speaking saints is seen widely in the Palestinian territories as a much-needed boost for the embattled Christian community, which is on the decline in the Middle East, in the heart of the area where the religion was founded more than 2,000 years ago.

Christians make up one to 2.5% of West Bank population

Worshippers attend Sunday mass in Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

When Pope Francis made two Palestinian nuns saints in a ceremony at the Vatican on Sunday, Christians in the Palestinian territories celebrated.

The canonization of the Arabic-speaking saints is seen widely here as a much-needed boost for the embattled Christian community, which is on the decline in the Middle East, in the heart of the area where the religion was founded more than 2,000 years ago.

"It's a big day for the Christian community in Palestine and also for the Palestinian people," said Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, a short drive from some of the holiest sites in Christendom.

The Palestinian nuns, Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Bawardy, entered religious orders as teenagers in the late 1800s. Ghattas founded the Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, while Bawardy established the Carmel Convent in Bethlehem.

Depictions of the new saints adorned churches across the Palestinian territories.

The veneration of these two nuns, who lived during difficult times under Ottoman rule, came just days after the Vatican recognized the Palestinian territories as a state when it signed a new treaty. Israel has expressed disappointment at the church's move.

Pope Francis visited Bethlehem a year ago and made headlines around the world when he stopped to pray at the separation barrier that snakes through much of the occupied West Bank.

Father Ibrahim Shomali stands outside of Holy Family Church in Ramallah. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"The Vatican is always with us and [Pope Francis] is trying to put pressure also on the Palestinian community to stay," Shomali told CBC News. "We are under Israeli occupation in a difficult situation but we have to stay to witness Jesus Christ in his land."

Christianity may have been born here, and some of the religion's holiest sites attract pilgrims to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and beyond, but Christians only make up one to 2.5 per cent of the population of the West Bank. 

The economic situation under the occupation is largely to blame for the dwindling numbers, according to Shomali.

"We do not have work. So if you do not have work you do not have a future, you can't build a family. So they choose to leave the Middle East," he said.

The situation for Christians in other parts of the Middle East is more dire, especially with the rise of Islamic extremism.

The jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have threatened to execute Christians and other religious minorities, unless they convert to Islam. ISIS militants killed 22 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February.

Iraq's Christians have suffered enormously, with 125,000 men, women and children fleeing ISIS in the past year, according to a report by 60 Minutes

Thousands have taken shelter in tents, often located in the grounds of churches in the safe-haven of Erbil, in northern Iraq.

"ISIS told us to leave. At three in the morning we had to flee," Esa Amir told CBC News last fall. His family was forced from their home in a predominantly Christian village near Mosul, which is under ISIS control.

"They told the women to give their rings … if not, they will cut their fingers....

"They told us no Christians should be in this area any more."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story identified Palestinian nuns Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Bawardy as the first Arabic speaking saints. In fact, there are other Arabic speaking saints in Roman Catholicism, but they come from the time of the very early church.
    May 22, 2015 10:30 AM ET

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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