Palestinians on Sunday celebrated the canonization at the Vatican of two 19th century nuns from their region as their leaders urged their territory's dwindling population of Christians to remain in their homeland.
More than 2,000 Palestinians, including President Mahmoud Abbas, waived the Palestinian flag at St. Peter's Square as Pope Francis canonized Mariam Bawardy from Ibillin village in Galilee and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas from Jerusalem.
"It is a national day for us, not only Christians but for all Palestinians," said Xavier Abu Eid, a Roman Catholic official with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"The sight of the Palestinian flags in Rome and at St. Peter's Square was a joy for all of us and gave us a sense of pride," he said, adding: "Jesus Christ, who was born in Palestine, was our first saint, and every single Palestinian takes pride in that."
Bawardy was born in 1846 in Galilee during the Ottoman rule over the region. In 1876, she established the Carmelite Convent in Bethlehem, which still exists today. She died two years later.
Marie Alphonsine was the name given to Sultana Daniel Ghattas after ordination. She was born in 1843 in Jerusalem and set up the Holy Rosary Sisters, who were dedicated to women's education and empowerment and set up respected schools in the region and in other Arab countries. She died in 1927.
Two other 19th century nuns were also canonized Sunday: Jeanne Emilie de Villeneuve from France and Maria Cristina of the Immaculate Conception from Italy.
Michel Sabbah, the former head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, said the canonization of Bawardy and Ghattas meant that "Palestine is not only a land of war and battles, but that it is a land that gives rise to saints."
Abbas urged Palestinian Christians not to leave their land in a statement issued Saturday ahead of the canonizations.
"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.
The number of Palestinian Christians has dwindled over the years, particularly since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in June 1967. Most of them emigrated to the West in search of economic advancement and better living conditions.