From sisters to saints: Christian prayers answered in the Holy Land

Originally published on May 17th 2015 for The Independent

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Sister Isadora Sa’adeh darts around her Jerusalem convent with an effervescence that belies her 82 years, welcoming visitors to the Old City with a grin.

While the pint-size nun is cheerful by nature, she has something extra to smile about. On Sunday in the Vatican,  two 19th-century Arabic-speaking nuns, Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, were canonised, making them the first Palestinian saints in modern times. Ghattas co-founded the order Sister Isadora has been a member of since her teens.

The honour is a source of great pride for the Holy Land’s Christians, who make up about 2 per cent of the population of Israel and the Occupied  Territories. Coming on the heels of the Vatican’s formal recognition of the state of Palestine last week, many Christians hope it will be a boon to their small community.

The fate of the region’s Christians amid war and persecution is a growing concern for world leaders. Pope Francis said last year, “we cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians”.

On Sunday, in St Peter’s Square in front of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – whom the Pope called an “angel of peace” the day before – and 2,000 pilgrims,  Francis said: “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 co-existence.”

In the Holy Land, the greatest danger to the Christian community is emigration. According to Dr George Sabella, a retired professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, Palestinian Christians are twice as likely to emigrate as their Muslim counterparts. Highly educated and middle class, in the face of political instability they are often tempted to seek their fortunes away from home.

Dr Sabella, also a member of the Palestinian parliament from Mr Abbas’s Fatah party, sees the canonisations coupled with the Vatican treaty as “an encouragement for us [Christians] to stay put, as part of our societies”. He adds that Christians suffer the same occupation as their neighbours. “When I cross a checkpoint as a Christian Palestinian, I am a Palestinian and not a Christian. We all go through the same processes, the same security measures that the occupation applies.”

Ghattas and Bawardy were born in Ottoman Palestine – Ghattas in Jerusalem and Bawardy in a town in northern Galilee that is today part of Israel. Both overcame poverty and adversity, and are said to have had the Virgin Mary appear to them. They are credited with miracles that inspire today’s faithful to pray for their intercession.

At the Carmelite monastery founded by Bawardy in Bethlehem, Sister Serian of the Infant Jesus sees the veneration as “like a second birth for the Middle East Church”. In the past few years she reports more Palestinians approaching the Church to discuss dedicating their lives to religion. “This is good for us because we need people that speak our language… and understand our mentality,” explains the nun, herself born in Bethlehem. A person seeking solace in religion “needs to speak with someone who knows… your country and how you think”.

Sister Isadora, born in the West Bank, also stresses the importance of language and faith. The Holy Rosary Congregation that Ghattas co-founded focuses on education and nursing, and is spread across the Middle East. “I am an Arab,” says Sister Isadora, reciting The Lord’s Prayer in her mother tongue. “I am proud to pray in my own language.”

Arabic helps her order’s schools reach local populations of all religions. For decades, Sister Isadora taught science, maths, languages and PE. She now lives with two other nuns and runs a small guesthouse for pilgrims on a site where the order’s co-founder was said to have lived. The building also houses a display of artifacts from Ghattas’s time, including priests’ garbs, wooden pews and a plastic nun in an old-fashioned habit. Lucky visitors are treated to the personal touch of spicy olives from the octogenarian nun’s family land.

In a rarity for a woman who sleeps an average of two hours a night, Sister Isadora was planning to close the convent doors yesterday to watch events at the Vatican on a big screen. “I hope every one of us can learn from the example of how [Ghattas] lived,” she says. “She was a teacher. Humble, silent, and always smiling.”

Sister Serian, who was in Rome on Sunday, is optimistic that as Christianity is overlooked or feared dwindling in the place it began, the sainthoods “will tell the whole world we are here in Bethlehem, we are here in Palestine, in the Holy Land. Not only are we here but we are making peace and giving love and hope.”