Pope Francis has canonised two 19th century nuns who lived in Palestine, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Bawardy were amongst the four new saints announced in St Peter’s square in Rome. Their canonisation means that they are the first Palestinian saints born in modern times. On Saturday, Pope Francis met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas having called him “an angel of peace”. Over 2,000 pilgrims from the Middle East are said to have travelled to Rome to see the ceremony. The canonisation may be just one example of Palestine’s emerging involvement in the international community.
Mariam Bawardy is said to have been a Christian mystic who was known for her service to those in need. Equally, she is believed to have held strong to her faith in the face of the expectations of Christians to convert to Islam at the time. Born in Galilee, she is believed to have carried out many miracles and to have received stigmata, the presence of wounds representing those received by Christ on the cross. Marie Alphonsine Ghattas is also known to have worked with the poor within Palestine. She also established religious associations dedicated to devotion to Mary through the rosary. In modern times, the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters, which was cofounded by Marie Alphonsine, run many kindergartens and schools across the wider region.
The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity although in recent times their numbers have reduced, partially because of birth rates and emigration. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait have the largest numbers of Christians as percentage of their population; according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. In some ways the canonisation of the two Palestinian nuns may speak to Pope Francis’ aims of revitalising the Christian presence in the Middle East. Equally, the Vatican is aiming to diversify by adding Arabic as one of the five main languages used in information bulletins, potentially in an attempt to open up the religion to a greater audience.
The position of Palestine in the international community may be an important factor in the canonisation of Maria Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Bawardy. The challenging nature of the relationship between Palestine and Israel may have been a long defining topic of international relations. Although in the last year, Palestine may have seen the beginnings to increased recognition of its sovereignty. In December 2014, the European Parliament stated, in a resolution it passed, that is supports “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.” On April 1st 2015, Palestine officially joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) which might offer protection for human rights to those in Palestine.
Alongside Palestine’s seemingly increasing international recognition runs parallel the Vatican’s increasing pivot to the Middle East in an attempt to both protect Christian’s in the region and revitalise its presence. Pope Francis is showing an appetite for involvement in international affairs emphasised by his role in the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba. Interestingly, the canonisation ceremony in St. Peter’s Square was attended by both a delegation from Palestine and Israel. Potentially the Vatican may be able to position itself as a form of mediation as an impartial organisation in the situation. Equally the Vatican may aim to raise awareness and support for Christians in the region who may experience groups such as ISIS.
Palestine is increasing its involvement and recognition internationally which may improve the situation within the country. The Vatican may also be attempting to expand its presence in the Middle East whilst also promoting a possible support for the Christian’s there in the face of their challenges. The recent twelve months have brought significant developments to Palestine, with the possibility of improvements in the future.
How might the canonisation of two Palestinian saints indicate increasing involvement of Palestine in the international community?