Christian knights continue delivering babies in Bethlehem as Israel-Hamas conflict devastates Holy Land

Just 1,500 steps from where Jesus was born was born, a chivalric order of Catholic knights is working towards a future where no newborn baby in the Holy Land will be denied a bed.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (commonly referred to as the Order of Malta) owns and operates the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, West Bank — where locals of all races and creeds seek quality maternity care that is in desperately short supply.

Fox News Digital toured the facility and interviewed those responsible for keeping the maternity center operating despite the grim economic and political situation in the West Bank.

Boasting state-of-the-art technology and professionals trained in elite medical programs, Holy Family Hospital offers the quality of care found in some of the U.S.’s most prestigious hospitals.

It is the single most advanced maternity ward and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the Palestinian territories and is often referred to as the “jewel” of the Order of Malta. 

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It is also a beacon of hope for Bethlehem natives who find themselves caught in the middle of hostilities going on in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel.

“Each baby who is born is a great sign of hope. Every family rejoices, no matter what their economic situation is,” Ambassador Michèle Burke Bowe told Fox News Digital. “Palestinians love children. They celebrate children. The families tend to be bigger, and it’s just a huge celebration to have a new child.”

Bowe serves as the Head of the Representative Office to the State of Palestine for the Order of Malta. Her work focuses mainly on Holy Family Hospital and its management. She performs her job without a salary and usually pays for her own travel out of pocket, as do most ambassadors of the order.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

Holy Family Hospital, handed over to the Order of Malta in 1985 by the Sisters of Charity, has delivered over 70% of the babies born in Bethlehem since their first birth at the current facility in 1990. They delivered their 100,000th baby in January 2023.

Holy Family Hospital holds its Catholic identity as sacrosanct — the hospital strictly follows Catholic ethics regarding medical care and offers its services to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

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Religious imagery and wall crucifixes decorate the offices, NICU, and patient rooms of the hospital. Each baby is swaddled in a blanket and cap bearing the cross and shield of the Order of Malta.

The hospital employs over 220 local Palestinians as doctors, nurses, technicians, clerical staff, custodians and more. The jobs are highly coveted in Bethlehem due to their reliable salaries and security. 

Fox News Digital toured the NICU, where doctors and nurses were monitoring premature and low-birthweight newborns around the clock. The hospital regularly deals with high-risk pregnancies such as twins or babies born with genetic disorders.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

This positive impact of a Catholic institution has helped maintain the longstanding goodwill between local Christian communities and their Muslim neighbors in the birthplace of Jesus. 

“We are a Catholic teaching hospital, but we are also an ecumenical workplace. So, while the majority of our employees are actually Christian, we employ a lot of Muslims — and most notably, we employ 71% women, which I find very hopeful,” Bowe told Fox News Digital.

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Bowe continued, “And the women are employed in all ranges of positions and authority at the hospital. We have women as the head of the lab, the head of the pharmacy, the immediate past medical director and the immediate past head of the NICU.”

Part of the Order of Malta’s commitment to Catholic ethics is a refusal to ever turn away patients due to an inability to pay for care.

“We have two social workers at the hospital that work with the patients [regarding] their psychosocial needs, but these social workers can also adjust the expected family contribution all the way down to zero,” Bowe explained. “Normally, we subsidize every service which isn’t free, like the mobile medical clinic or the diabetes clinic or the menopause clinic. We subsidize by 50%, and so we ask families to contribute 50%. And if that’s a hardship, they can see the social workers.”

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

But even subsidies for maternal care starting at 50% have proved difficult for Palestinians to meet, leading the Order to try stretching their own dollars even further.

“We’ve noticed that families are having to choose between groceries and medical care, and the Order of Malta doesn’t want to put families in that position,” Bowe said. “So starting on April 1st, we increased our subsidy from 50% up to 75% to allow people to retain their dignity — to be able to afford proper health care, especially very important prenatal care and postnatal care and pediatric care.”

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These subsidies and free treatments are not cheap, and although the Order of Malta remains among world’s largest non-governmental providers of humanitarian aid, it does not have deep coffers. The resources necessary to operate Holy Family Hospital at a continual financial loss are often raised via private donations.

“We take care of the sick and the poor from Bethlehem based on the donations that we collect in the United States at Holy Family Hospital Foundation in Washington, D.C., and from many of the European associations of the Order of Malta and even the Association of the Order of Malta in Hong Kong and Australia,” Bowe told Fox News Digital.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

The Holy Family Hospital — by virtue of its refusal to ever deny healthcare and its lack of a for-profit business model — is constantly juggling financial concerns and making hard decisions on where resources can be reallocated.

Bowe told Fox News Digital that the main focus at the moment is simply maintaining the high level of care without terminating positions or cutting employees off from their income.

“Right now, I believe that making sure that we can continue to pay our doctors, our nurses [is most important] — our staff is all Palestinian, and they are feeding their extended families. So they’re really counting on full salaries,” Bowe said of managing the finances of the hospital.

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While the staff is all local, the ownership and highest-level administration of the hospital is mostly overseen by the ancient order of knighthood.

Order of Malta

The Order of Malta was founded in the early 11th century by Blessed Fra’ Gerard, a lay Benedictine brother who gathered Christian volunteers to establish care centers for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the age of the Crusades.

This group — formally approved by a Papal Bull in 1113 and established outside an abbey dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Jerusalem — became known as the Knights Hospitaller. Their stated mission was the care for “our Lords, the poor and the sick.”

As the Crusades raged and threats to Christians within the Holy Land grew, the Knights Hospitaller were forced to take on military characteristics to defend their hospitals and institutions.

Following the collapse of the King of Jerusalem and centuries of migrating from region to region, the continuously extant Order of Malta now operates as a unique international institution similar in many ways to a nation-state — but without its own territory.

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It is recognized as a sovereign entity in international law and maintains a non-voting observer role at the United Nations, similar to the Holy See. The order issues its own passports, prints its own stamps, and mints its own currency. It even maintains its own military corps in partnership with the Italian Army.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

The Order also enjoys formal diplomatic relationships with over 120 countries around the world. Ambassadors like Bowe represent the Order of Malta and its work and maintain communications with national officials.

Knighthood or damehood in the Order of Malta is by invitation only — it requires an extensive period of spiritual formation, commitment to acts of public service, and fidelity to the Catholic faith. In some countries, membership is restricted based on nobility.

The religious order is divided into multiple ranks. The approximately 13,000 members worldwide are led by just several dozen professed knights who have taken religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to become friars — known by the title “Knights of Justice.” Members of lower ranks are more numerous and do not take religious vows but instead promises or oaths of obedience to the order.

The order’s highest authority is its Grandmaster, a sovereign prince treated as a head of state in international law. The position is currently held by Fra’ John Dunlap, a Canadian attorney and Knight of Justice since 2008.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

The traditionally accepted spot in Bethlehem where Jesus is believed to have been born is marked by the Church of the Nativity. It was built in the 4th century by Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox services are held inside.

Bethlehem was once a thriving tourist and pilgrimage destination for Christians from around the world, but the town has seen a near total collapse of the industry since the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas began in the Gaza Strip.

Local Palestinians — used to making ends meet via operating Christian souvenir stores, guiding tour groups, or driving taxis for foreign tourists and pilgrims — are now left without the ability to work.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

Security measures implemented after the Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli citizens by the Gaza-based terror group have made travel into nearby Jerusalem virtually impossible for most Palestinians in the West Bank.

This economic stagnation has led to a massive decline in the Christian population of Bethlehem as young people flee to other countries to find financial stability.

Even the Order of Malta’s humanitarian work has been compromised by the conflict.

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The hospital maintains a mobile care vehicle outfitted with equipment for prenatal check-ups. In previous years, the van would make regular expeditions to communities outside the main city centers, bringing maternal healthcare to those unable to travel to the hospital.

Since Oct. 7, the mobile unit has been severely restricted in its movement, and these humanitarian expeditions have slowed to a near halt.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

A long-term plan for sustainable peace seems far off, if not impossible, but the Order of Malta and Holy Famiily Hospital have no plans of leaving the area, regardless of what the future brings.

“As a member of the Order of Malta, the first thing I would say is to pray for peace and reconciliation and understanding,” Bowe told Fox News Digital. “And to pray for our efforts at the hospital, which are really so beautiful because they are an ecumenical effort.”

She continued, “And most importantly, you can make a donation that would help to deliver a baby in the Holy Land in Bethlehem, just 1500 footsteps from where Jesus was born two thousands of years ago.”

Despite the anxiety of managing such a financially and logistically precarious maternity hospital, Bowe remains optimistic about the future.

Holy Family Hospital Bethlehem Order of Malta

She attributes it to the hope she sees every day in the new families formed at Holy Family, summarized in one truth she repeats to anyone who will listen: “When you have a job, and you have a newborn baby, you have hope.”

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