The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is at once a Roman Catholic lay religious order, a humanitarian organization, and a sovereign entity under international law. It counts 13,500 Knights and Dames as members, boasts diplomatic relations with 104 countries, enjoys observer status at the United Nations and prints its own stamps, coins, license plates and passports.
WHY WAS IT FOUNDED?
The order traces its history to an 11th century infirmary in Jerusalem set up by a monk to care for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. During the Crusades, as its humanitarian efforts spread, the order took on a military role to protect both pilgrims and Christendom as a whole from Muslim attacks. In February 1113, 900 years ago this month, Pope Paschal II recognized the order with a papal bull.
WHAT GIVES IT SOVEREIGN STATUS?
The Order of Malta's forces once occupied Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta. But Napoleon expelled the order from Malta in 1798, depriving the knights of the final patch of land over which they ruled. It still has its own legal code and constitution, a government and courts. But, other than a few grand buildings, it has no territory to call its own. "Its sovereignty is more a legal fiction than actual sovereignty," said Giovanni Bonello, a retired Maltese judge who has written extensively on the order.
WHO GETS TO BE A KNIGHT?
There was a time when a would-be member of the Order of Malta had to prove nobility through all eight great-grandparents. Now, such noble requirements are largely relaxed except in some European countries. The highest-ranking members, the Professed Knights, make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live like monks. The second class, Knights and Dames in Obedience, include both men and women who pledge obedience. Members of the third class don't make any religious promises but are supposed to live their public and private lives as exemplary Christians.
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One of the orders most illustrious -- and notorious -- members was the artist Caravaggio, who was expelled in 1608 after he murdered one young man and got into a brawl that left a knight seriously injured. Its most controversial leader was Czar Paul I of Russia, who took over as grand master after the order was expelled from Malta and needed a protector. The Holy See never recognized Paul's appointment because he was neither Catholic (he was Orthodox Christian), nor celibate, nor elected.
Today the order includes prominent Catholics, including politicians, lawyers, doctors and academics.
The order runs hospitals, ambulance services and old folks' homes in 120 countries, relying on members, some 20,000 employees and 80,000 fixed volunteers. It also mobilizes emergency relief aid when disasters strike. One of the order's hallmark projects is its Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, which provides free maternity care for the area's largely Muslim population.
The order's Santa Maria villa on the Aventine hill features perhaps the most famous keyhole in the world, a must-see for any tourist visiting the nearby Circus Maximus: Through the hole a visitor can see the perfectly framed dome of St. Peter's Basilica. But it also provides a unique vista of three sovereign entities, one behind another: the gardens of the villa belonging to the Order of Malta, a patch of Italy along the Tiber River, and beyond that, the Holy See.
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