Two nuns who lived during Ottoman-era Palestine will be canonized by Pope Francis at the Vatican, in what Jerusalem’s top Catholic body hailed on Wednesday as the first sainthood of modern-day Palestinians. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is now in “full preparation” for Pope Francis’ canonization of Marie Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Baouardy later this month, top church officials said.

"Our Holy Land has given hundreds of saints during its long history. Our greatest saint is Holy Mary, mother of Jesus,” said Bishop William Shomali, in comments that Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday. "But we have three only from the modern period, whose language was not Greek, or Latin, nor Aramaic, but Arabic."

Ghattas and Baouardy would become the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints in addition to being the first from the region’s modern era. The Vatican, which first announced the canonization of the two nuns in February, is still reviewing the canonization of a third Palestinian, a Salesian monk.

Ghattas, who was born in Jerusalem in 1847, was co-founder of the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters and spent much of her life supporting impoverished people and establishing schools and orphanages in the area around Bethlehem (now part of the West Bank). Baouardy, born in Galilee (now part of northern Israel) in 1843, also founded an order of nuns known as the Discalced Carmelites of Bethlehem and was known for being a mystic. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1983. Beatification is the first step toward sainthood. 

The move to canonize them holds a special significance for Christians in the area, who have rallied around the sainthood process for the nuns as a symbol of the continued importance of the Holy Land’s Christian community. “This is a very big event for us, for Christian Palestinians in this land,” said Palestinian Christian Helen Zananiri in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter at Ghattas’ beatification ceremony in 2009. “It shows all the world that there are Christians who speak Arabic. We are very proud we live in this holy land.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been invited to attend the May 17 canonization Mass at the Vatican by Jerusalem’s top Catholic official, Patriarch Fouad Twal, who called the impending sainthood “a comfort [to] our country, torn apart by conflicts and wars, and our people, who continue to suffer and endure through injustices."

When Israel was established in 1948, Christians constituted 18 percent of the population, a figure that fell to around 2 percent in recent years amid mass emigration by the community. Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land last year raised hopes among many that the church would be able to help improve the fortunes of Palestinian Christians, who face the same travel restrictions in the Israeli-occupied territories as their Muslim counterparts, but the Vatican played down the political significance of the visit at the time.