Jerusalem - At the Rosary Sisters High School in Beit Hanina, a group of girls laughed and nibbled on pieces of knafeh, a traditional Palestinian dessert of sweet stretchy cheese. Hymns were sung, and later, as church chimes echoed through the school's loudspeakers, one student displayed her latest artwork: A cross-shaped photo collage of the first two Palestinian nuns to gain sainthood in modern times.

The school's festivities were among a number of celebrations, masses and prayer vigils taking place in the West Bank and Israel in the lead-up to the canonisation of two nuns, Sisters Mariam (Mary) Bawardi and Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, both born in the second half of the 19th century in Ottoman-era Palestine.

"Some of our teachers cried when they heard the news," said Sister Horntace Nakhleh, headmistress of the Beit Hanina Rosary Sisters school which was founded by Ghattas. "This was like a wedding for us, for all the students irrespective of their religion. We have 20 students and faculty members going to Italy to be part of the upcoming celebrations."


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Pope Francis will bestow sainthood on the two nuns on May 17 in a Vatican ceremony that will be attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, making them the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints. No other modern-day Palestinians have been canonised. The church is also reviewing the case of a third Palestinian, a Salesian monk, for potential sainthood.

Becoming a saint is the highest accolade that the Catholic Church can bestow. The person to be canonised must have lived a life dedicated to others and have miracles attributed to them - criteria that must be proven by scholars, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem told Al Jazeera. 

"[The pope] is determined to keep the hope in the hearts and minds of our people, especially [when they] are suffering from all kinds of policies of the occupation.

Issa Kassissieh, Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See

Many see this step by the pontiff, who visited Bethlehem last year and prayed at the Israeli separation wall, as an attempt to give hope to those living in the conflict-ridden Palestinian territories, and to cast a spotlight on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

"[This shows] that he's consistent with his message that the Holy Land is a land of peace, not a land of war, and this land should be where people build bridges, not walls," said Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See, who is a Christian. "He is determined to keep the hope in the hearts and minds of our people, especially [when they] are suffering from all kinds of policies of the occupation."

Palestinians expressed hope that the event would turn the world's attention to Palestine and the region, of which Pope Francis has been mindful. Last April, during Easter celebrations, the pontiff spoke of the conflict. "We pray for peace for all the peoples of the Holy Land," he said. "May the culture of encounter grow between Israelis and Palestinians and the peace process be resumed, in order to end years of suffering and division."

In the lead-up to the canonisation, the Vatican also said it was preparing to sign its first accord with Palestine, two years after officially recognising it as a state. The new agreement outlines the relationship of the Catholic Church with the Palestinian Territories, with respect to issues surrounding property, schools, and tax breaks, among others. 

Four different Latin patriarchate committees are preparing for the attendance of more than 1,500 people from Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon at the ceremony, which will take place at Vatican City's St Peter's Square, according to the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.


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Born in Ibillin, a Galilee village near Nazareth, Bawardi was baptised into the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. She travelled to France, where she joined the Carmel of Pau convent, and to India, where she established several convents. Bawardi finally moved to Bethlehem, where she founded the first Carmelite order in Palestine before she died in 1878. In 1983, she was beatified - the step taken before canonisation - by the late Pope John Paul II.

Ghattas, meanwhile, was born Soultana Maria in Jerusalem in 1843, and was only a teenager when she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition. She later founded the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, the first Palestinian women's congregation. The congregation set up the Rosary Sisters schools, highly prestigious Catholic educational institutions in Jerusalem, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ghattas, who died in 1927, was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

The nuns' selfless work both inside and outside the church made them especially exemplary, Twal told Al Jazeera. While Bawardi took a more mystical, contemplative route throughout her life, Ghattas was known for her push to educate girls.

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"The Rosary Sisters have schools everywhere, especially in the Arab world, with two to three thousand girls," Twal said "You can imagine the impact that a good education has on our young people."

Palestinians say the canonisations come as a glimmer of hope at a time of great despair. The political scene is dire: Talks with Israel are at a standstill, feuding parties Hamas and Fatah are nowhere near reconciling, and Gaza remains besieged and in tatters, with very little of its damaged infrastructure rebuilt after last summer's war.

"The Palestinian people are frustrated on all fronts - socially, economically, intellectually, religiously, nationalistically," Sister Nakhleh told Al Jazeera. "Hopefully this can be a revival period for everyone."

The canonisations have also boosted the morale of the Christian community, whose numbers have dwindled since Palestinians were displaced en masse from historical Palestine and Israel was declared a state. In 1948, Christians constituted 18 percent of the population, a figure that fell to around two percent in 2014. In Jerusalem's Old City, there were an estimated 30,000 Christians in 1944; today, the number does not exceed 11,000, according to official figures.

"[The canonisation proves] that Palestinian Christians - as in the past, as today, as in the future - are active in society and are part and parcel of the Palestinian fabric," Kassissieh told Al Jazeera. "We have to [be] steadfast through difficult times and we shouldn't [succumb] to immigration. After all, we are here as guardians of the holy shrines."

Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa 

Source: Al Jazeera