VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis canonized two nuns from what was 19th century Palestine on Sunday in hopes of encouraging Christians across the Middle East who are facing a wave of persecution from Islamic extremists.
Sisters Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas were among four sisters who were made saints Sunday at a Mass in a sun-soaked St. Peter's Square. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an estimated 2,000 pilgrims from the region, some waving Palestinian flags, were on hand for the canonization of the first saints from the Holy Land since the early years of Christianity.
Church officials are holding up the new saints as a sign of hope and encouragement for Christians across the Mideast at a time when violent persecution and discrimination have driven many Christians from the region of Christ's birth.
They were canonized alongside two other nuns, Saints Jeanne Emilie de Villeneuve from France and Maria Cristina of the Immaculate Conception from Italy.
"Inspired by their example of mercy, charity and reconciliation, may the Christians of these lands look with hope to the future, following the path of solidarity and fraternal coexistence," Francis said of the women at the end of the Mass.
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 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.
In his homily, Francis praised Bawardy as having been "a means of encounter and fellowship with the Muslim world," while Ghattas "shows us the importance of becoming responsible for one another, of living lives of service to one another."
"Their luminous example challenges us in our lives as Christians," he said.
In addition to the Palestinian delegation on hand for the Mass, Israel also was represented by its ambassador to the Holy See, while France, Italy and Jordan also sent official delegations.
In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, there are only 11,000 Christians out of a population of 800,000, reported "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon in a 2012 piece about Christians in the Holy Land.
The one place where Christians are not suffering from violence is the Holy Land, but Palestinian Christians have been leaving in large numbers for years, Simon reported. The flight has been so significant, that the prospect of holy sites, like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, without local Christians is looming as a real possibility.
Although they have not experienced the violent persecution that has decimated Christian communities elsewhere in the region, the population still has driven thousands of Christians to seek better opportunities abroad.
Francis has raised the plight of Christians across the Middle East as a cause for concern, denouncing how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has violently driven thousands of Christians and religious minorities from their homes in Syria and Iraq.
As it seeks to erase Christianity from the landscape, ISIS allows no Christian symbols, reported "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan, in a piece last year about Iraq's Christian minority. As ISIS took over Mosul in 2013, they blew up a mosque which was a site holy to both Christians and Muslims because the Old Testament prophet Jonah was said to be buried inside.
Just like the Nazis marked the property of Jews, Christian homes in Mosul were marked with a red symbol, the Arabic letter N - for Nasara - an early Islamic term for Christians. When ISIS puts it on your home, you either convert to Islam, pay an extortion tax or face the sword.