Order of Malta appeals for peace and hope for the Holy Land

The Ambassador of the Order of Malta to Palestine speaks of the fear spreading across the Palestinian territories with the escalation of war and of how the people of Bethlehem, and the maternity hospital she heads there, are increasingly unable to provide vital services.

By Linda Bordoni

The eyes of the world are mostly on Gaza which is under constant attack as Israel targets Hamas infrastructure in the enclave.

Since the 7 October attacks by Hamas on Israeli citizens a war has erupted causing thousands of deaths and a humanitarian catastrophe. As of Monday, 30 October, over 8,000 Palestinians and some 1,400 Israelis have been killed. 

Air strikes and bombings have targeted the Gaza Strip, but Palestinians across the whole nation are suffering as increased security closures and travel restrictions have halted the transportation of goods and basic necessities between cities and impacted the capacity of many workers to reach their places of employment, including doctors and medical personnel.

Michéle Burke Bowe, the Order of Malta Ambassador to Palestine and President of the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem spoke to Vatican Radio about the dire situation that has engulfed Bethlehem since the conflict broke out compounding the already fragile state of the region.

Listen to Ambassador Michéle Burke Bowe, President of the Order of Malta’s Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem

The ambassador illustrated a tense in Bethlehem where falling debris is a constant threat and fear has become a daily companion subverting ordinary life.

“People are scared, the prices in the stores for food have skyrocketed, many things are difficult to find including some medicines, baby formula in particular” she said noting that after the first days of the war, children are back in school “in an atmosphere of great fear.”

Frequent Israeli security operations and arrests further add to the tension she said and isolation imposed by the separation wall between Bethlehem and Gaza exacerbates the already dire situation, making it impossible for residents to move freely.

“There’s an overwhelming feeling of sadness and helplessness for the people in Gaza and a great desire for peace, just to be able to return to their daily lives, take care of their families to earn a living and live in security.”

The flag of the Order of Malta in Bethlehem

The flag of the Order of Malta in Bethlehem

Ambassador Bowe reflected on how Bethlehem was severely impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic which dealt a severe blow to the local economy as the predominantly Christian community of Bethlehem relies on pilgrimages and tourism for its livelihood. 

She recalled how during the pandemic people struggled to make ends meet.

“Mothers were coming to deliver who hadn’t eaten in two days. People were selling their furniture and their cars. If they had any extra land, they were selling land just to be able to eat,” she said, noting that health care became a luxury “where people would have to decide between healthcare and groceries or electricity.”

“They’re right back in that same situation,” she said.

Ambassador Michéle Burke Bowe

State of despair

Amid the general shut-down of Bethlehem, Ambassador Bowe said The Holy Family Hospital, which plays a critical role in providing medical services to the region, has also been severely affected following the inability of the medical delivery system in the West Bank to move between urban centres.

“The Holy Family Hospital has a lifeline, which is a mobile medical clinic which travels into the villages and it can’t get there,” she added, “there are women in villages who are receiving no care, children who are receiving no care.”

“The hospital’s mobile medical clinic, which caters to underserved villages, can no longer reach its destinations.”

Electricity and water supply issues have compounded the challenges, she said with some villages that have had their minimal electricity cut, and even their water sources are running low. 

“Bethlehem,” she said, “ is grappling with not only economic devastation but also a deep sense of fear regarding what the future may hold.”

Israeli security closures and roadblocks

The ambassador said that escalating Israeli security measures have added to the hardship and affected the staff at The Holy Family Hospital.

She explained that the approximately 500 checkpoint roadblocks established in the past weeks effectively segregate towns and this has forced the hospital Holy Family Hospital to rearrange its staff, swapping resident doctors with other hospitals to ensure they can work closer to home. 

One problem, she continued, is that specialists are thin on the ground, “We have a doctor in Bethlehem who’s a cardiologist, a pediatric cardiologist, not very many of them in the West Bank, and she can’t travel to Ramallah to the hospital where she works.”

Grief for Gaza hospitals and babies

As President of the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, Ambassador Bowe said the plight of the hospitals in Gaza, in particular the neonatal one, resonates deeply with her.

“It just breaks my heart to see it. A premature baby or a sick baby is so fragile, and at the same time so strong,” she said, noting that if given the proper care a baby can really flourish. In a situation of war, without adequate supplies, without adequate formula, with precarious electricity, the reality is the majority of these babies won’t have a chance at life,” she said.

“The majority of these babies won’t have a chance at life.”

A medical worker assists a premature baby at Shifa Hospital in Gaza

A medical worker assists a premature baby at Shifa Hospital in Gaza

Storm heaven with prayers for peace

Echoing Pope Francis’ appeal to join him in prayer for peace in the Holy Land, the ambassador said: “Our appeal is to storm heaven with prayers, with fasting, with sacrifice, to call and write letters to people of influence and to just let peace prevail.”

The Holy Land, Ambassador Bowe continued, is such an important place for all three monotheistic religions: “ We just need to work together and to have peace.”

Speaking from her Catholic point of view, she says she thinks of the words from the Scriptures: Jesus wept when he saw Jerusalem.

“I can only imagine that Jesus is weeping to see His beloved people having taken up arms, and to see the disastrous outcomes for innocent civilians and children and elderly just suffering at the hands of war.”

“I can only imagine that Jesus is weeping to see His beloved people having taken up arms.”

The work of the Role Order of Malta

The Order of Malta, with a history spanning nearly a thousand years, has been a consistent force for relief and assistance during times of crisis and conflict. It continues in its mission to serve the people of Bethlehem and Gaza, irrespective of their faith. 

Those wishing to support the Order of Malta’s humanitarian efforts can visit the website and make a donation. 

This would be extremely helpful for us, the ambassador said, to be able to carry out our work saving the smallest babies and bringing hope to their families “because nothing is more hopeful than a brand-new baby and a job.”

“At Holy Family Hospital, we directly or indirectly employ 220 people,” she concluded, “and that brings a lot of hope to Bethlehem, which is one of the most stable, yet poorest Governorates in Palestine.”

“Nothing is more hopeful than a brand-new baby and a job.”

A new born baby at the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem