The Constantinian Basilica of Bethlehem conceals the Grotto of the Nativity, where the birthplace of Christ has been venerated since the 2nd century. Since an Ottoman decree of 1852, the administration of the holy place has been shared between the Greek Orthodox, Latin and Armenian Apostolic Churches. In 2010, the churches decided to restore the building, thus allowing the discovery of a Byzantine mosaic representing angels.
A preschool that welcomes the youngest
Joyful babblings pierce the silence of the dormitory still plunged in a bluish half-light. It is 2 p.m., the siesta is over! The seven newborns stretch, romp and shake. They chirp at the sight of Sister Denise, who looks at them with tender eyes. Tightly wrapped in her blue Daughter of Charity habit, the Lebanese nun abandons herself to tenderness. The hardness of her features fades in the face of the wounded innocence of her early childhood. Scrutinised by the big black eyes eager for love of these little Muslim orphans, the Sister can only melt. And lose a little of the roughness forged by three decades of a life dedicated to the most destitute in a tormented Holy Land, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Over the frail railing of a bed with bars, she caresses a small, full, pink ball. The six-week-old infant clutches her round finger so tightly that Sister Denise lets him take refuge in her arms. Lamis is the darling child. The youngest child of the Holy Family preschool. This unique institution in the West Bank welcomes about a hundred children up to 6 years old, abandoned, found or temporarily placed by the Palestinian social service. The Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul who founded it in 1885 could not have chosen a better location: at the entrance to the old town of Bethlehem, the city of the Infant God, whose heart beats in the Basilica of the Nativity, where Jesus was born.
"Lamis was only a few hours old when the police found her in a box in Hebron. "In her white, almost timeless voice, one can sense a certain weariness in the preschool superior. She has seen everything. And she no longer counts the newborns abandoned in dustbins, thrown at the foot of a tree in the open country, wrapped in newspapers on the street, left on the steps of mosques or the preschool. Eighteen babies this year alone, from Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, Jericho or Jenin. "A sad record," she says. Two of them were born in the greatest secrecy at the Holy Family Hospital, the state-of-the-art maternity hospital next to the preschool. The hospital was run by the Daughters of Charity until the Order of Malta took over in the 1990s.
Ahed, discovered in a rubbish heap
Moving from one cot to another, Sister Denise stops to look at each of these survivors of death. Rita? Abandoned in front of the preschool gate with a medal of Mary around her neck. "This was not enough, because as we did not know the parents, we could not prove that she was a Christian. Here, when a child is born, it is automatically Muslim. "Ahed? Discovered in a rubbish heap near Hebron. "He was a sight to behold, but he turned out to be a beautiful baby. "Glancing at the image of the Virgin and Child, as if to make sure that the Mother is watching over her family, the nun wants to continue to believe that "each of their stories is a holy story. God keeps them.
Sister Denise, smartphone in hand, scrolls through the photos of her protégés taken on their arrival. We can hardly keep our eyes open. We are moved. We are indignant. We ask questions. "They are the children of sin," she finally says with a painful pout. As confidence grows, her tongue loosens: "In Muslim society, relationships outside marriage are not tolerated. The daughter-mother accused of adultery can be killed. The baby too. For the honour of the family. "An Islamic law that is all the more shocking when you know that these children are frequently the result of rape. And very often of incest.
The white statue of the Virgin Mary, machine-gunned during the second Intifada, still dominates the elegant blond stone building of which the church is the heart. From the terrace, Bethlehem can be seen in its sad reality.