Pope Francis has canonised two Palestinian nuns from the 19th century, the first from the Middle East venerated since the early days of Christianity.

The Catholic Church leader on Sunday led a ceremony, attended by about 2,000 pilgrims, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at the Vatican to mark the sainthood of Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, as well as Jeanne Emilie de Villeneuve from France and Maria Cristina from Italy.

Her message was to educate Arab women and girls.

Sister Hortance Nakhleh

Church officials are holding up the new Palestinian saints as a sign of hope and encouragement for Christians in the Middle East at a time when violent persecution has driven many Christians from the region of Christ's birth.

In his homily, Francis said the two women were models of showing unity and charity towards all.

"Their luminous example challenges us in our lives as Christians," he said.

Ghattas, through her focus on women's education and community work, is said to have left behind a network of convents, schools and religious centres. In comparison, Bawardy's life is lived on through the memory of her tough and mysterious life.

A church in
 West Jerusalem is housed in a convent of the Rosary Sisters, the order that she founded for Arab women in 1880.

It is one of many Rosary Sisters institutions across the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and even further afield.

"Her message was to educate Arab women and girls," Sister Hortance Nakhleh said.

"The period she lived in was a difficult one for Arab women, and their education was very limited," Nakhleh said. 

In a statement released on Saturday, Abbas praised the two new saints as inspirational models for today's Palestinians and urged their fellow Christians to remain in the region.

"We call on Palestinian Christians to stay with us and enjoy the rights of full and equal citizenship, and bear with us the difficulties of life until we achieve liberty, sovereignty and human dignity," he said.

Israel has expressed its 'disappointment' after the Vatican officially recognised the state of Palestine in the treaty [EPA]

Abbas' visit came days after the Vatican finalised a bilateral treaty with the "state of Palestine" that made explicit its recognition of Palestinian statehood. 

The Vatican said it had expressed "great satisfaction" over the new treaty during the talks with the Palestinian delegation. It said the pope, and later the Vatican secretary of state, also expressed hopes that direct peace talks with Israel would resume.

"To this end, the wish was reiterated that with the support of the international community, Israelis and Palestinians may take with determination courageous decisions to promote peace," a Vatican statement said.

Israel earlier had expressed its "disappointment" that the Vatican officially recognised the State of Palestine in the treaty, which covers the activities of the Catholic Church in Palestinian territory.

Source: Agencies