VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday sent a powerful message of solidarity and encouragement to Christians in the Holy Land, as he canonized two Palestinian religious sisters, the first Palestinian saints of modern times.

Marie-Alphonsine, founder of Palestine’s first congregation, the Sisters of the  Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, and Mariam of Jesus Crucified Baouardy, the founder of Carmelite Convents in Bethlehem and India, were raised to the altars on Sunday, along with two other women religious, one French and one Italian — French nun and foundress, Sr. Jeanne Emilie de Villeneuve, and Sr. Maria Cristina of the Immaculate Conception from Naples — at a Pontifical Mass celebrated in a sunny St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope said the four new female saints teach us “to abide in God and in his love, and thus to proclaim by our words and our lives the Resurrection of Jesus, to live in unity with one another and with charity towards all.”

“This is the secret of the saints: abiding in Christ, joined to him like branches to the vine, in order to bear much fruit (cf. Jn 15:1-8). And this fruit is non other than love,” he said.

Those attending the canonizations included a delegation from the Holy Land — Jordan, Palestine and Israel — consisting of over 2000 people. The delegation was led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, who serves as President of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.

Also in attendance were Archbishop of Acre for the Melkites, Georges Bacouni; the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Moussa el-Hage; and bishops from Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Cyprus, who were accompanied by priests, religious, and men and women and faithful from various Churches.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was also present at Sunday’s canonization Mass, having met on Saturday with Pope Francis. A Vatican statement described the discussions as “cordial,” and said the two sides “expressed great satisfaction with the agreement reached on the text of a comprehensive agreement between the parties concerning essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine, which will be signed in the near future.”

Patriarch Twal said of Sunday's canonizations: “The declaration of the sainthood of the two nuns from Palestine is a spiritual event of prime importance for the citizens of the Holy Land, amid the difficulties we are experiencing, as the two saints enlighten our path. As the Holy Land, wrecked by violence and dissent, has for sometimes had a tarnished image, our two saints emerge to restore its sanctity, reminding us that sanctity is possible even in the most difficult circumstances.” 

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem added: “The canonization of the two girls from the East during these dark times is an invitation from His Holiness Pope Francis to pray, knowing that only prayer can  miraculously help save our faith in the midst of these times of trial. 

“Now, we have two new saints who represent a model of perfection for Christians, as well as for Muslims and Jews alike. They are both named Mary, and this name is widespread and commonly used among all three traditions. It is a sign of our modern time which suggests that we can talk about the three religions without any discrimination,” he said.

Fr. Rifat Bader, Director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media of Amman, Jordan, told journalists on Friday at a press briefing: “The Churches of the Holy Land convey heartfelt gratitude and thanks to His Holiness Pope Francis, who always states that “the Middle East without Christians, is not the Middle East.”

He added: “We view this grand event, which takes place for the first time since the days of the Apostles, as a message of solidarity and encouragement to the Christians of the Holy Land, especially to the  Christians and parishioners in all other Middle East countries, and to those who have been forcibly displaced and deported from their home countries, to all those who suffer from persecution, and whose persecutors sometimes think that by ‘killing they are offering a sacrifice to God,’ as Jesus himself  warned.”

The canonization coincides with the Church celebrations of the Year of Consecrated Life and the Marian Month of May. 

Commenting on significance of the timing, Fr. Bader said: “We view the consecration of the founder of the Rosary Sisters as an invitation to intensify the daily Rosary prayers in churches, houses, parish groups to bring peace, love and mutual respect among all the people of the Middle East.”