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VALLETTA, Malta — When it comes to European microstates — an exclusive club that includes countries like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino — the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) may be the most microscopic of them all.
Unlike the minuscule Principality of Monaco, which has 39,000 inhabitants crammed into two square kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, or the even tinier Vatican, with 1,000 people occupying barely half a square kilometer in downtown Rome, the SMOM has neither citizens nor territory (it does have passports, postage stamps and coins, though).
And that’s just fine with Daniel de Petri Testaferrata, president of the order’s 105-member Maltese Association.
“One of the order’s great strengths, ironically, is that it has neither territory nor citizens,” de Petri explained. “We therefore don’t need an army, we can’t be invaded, and we can’t be eradicated by a foreign force.”
Another irony is that despite its long-winded name, the Knights of Malta — officially known as the “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta” — was neither founded in Malta, nor is it headquartered there (it’s based in Rome). And despite the “military” part of its name, the order has long shed its military past and returned to its Christian roots as a charitable organization helping the world’s poor.
“When one talks about the Knights of Malta, the first image that comes to mind is that of a crusader bearing a sword,” de Petri said. “Today, however, the order is a global, articulated international structure that devotes itself entirely to the care of the sick and needy.”
That care spans the global spectrum, from refugees in war zones, to ostracized ethnic groups such as the Dalits in India, to neglected elderly and disabled young people throughout Europe.
But the fabled Catholic religious order still fights to dispel the many myths and misconceptions about what it actually does. The confusion isn’t too surprising given the group’s secretive nature, its one-time association with the Crusades and its elite roster of members (replete with “knights,” “dames” and a “grand master” elected for life).
The enigma surrounding the ancient order has given rise to various conspiracy theories. Among them: The SMOM was behind the Kennedy assassination; it is made up of far-right anti-Muslim fundamentalists who pushed for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and its members include former CIA directors, military generals and CEOs.
Simple Mission with Serious Reach
But de Petri dismisses the conspiracy theories and says the order’s mission is simple: helping the less fortunate, regardless of race or religion.
De Petri, whose full title, according to his business card, is Marchesino of San Vincenzo Ferreri, spoke to us at his office, located just in front of the parliament building in central Valletta, the medieval capital of this Mediterranean island nation.
Today, SMOM members no longer need to come from noble ancestry but rather must commit to the order’s core values. This means pitching in to help the group’s many medical, social and humanitarian projects around the world, particularly in countries struck by conflict or natural disaster.
The SMOM’s vital statistics are certainly impressive. Its 14,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers are currently active in 120 countries. It commands an annual budget of 1.5 billion euros, all funded through donations and membership dues.
At present, the SMOM has diplomatic relations with 108 nations, including most of Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean; it also enjoys observer status at the United Nations. Germany, the newest country to recognize the order, formalized bilateral ties earlier this year.
Even though a third of the order’s members are Americans, the United States doesn’t formally recognize it. Neither does Britain or France.
“We are in the very unique position of being a sovereign entity without being a country, and the U.S. State Department requires territorial possession for diplomatic recognition,” de Petri said. “This is a major stumbling block.
“Many people ask me, ‘Why on Earth does a small NGO like yours require diplomatic recognition?’” he said. “The truth is, this organization actually manages to use its diplomatic credentials, not for the fanfare and the pomp that goes with sovereignty, but as a means to gain access to areas where organizations like the Red Cross simply can’t get into.”
From Jerusalem to Rome
“The order started off as a small fraternity of monks in Jerusalem. One monk from [the Italian city-state of] Amalfi began ministering to the ill. He realized that the pilgrims en route to Jerusalem were encountering medical problems, since they’d generally travel on foot,” de Petri explained. “He initially set up a hospital which eventually spread to most of the Mediterranean.”
In 1113, Pope Pascal II decided to form this band of brothers into a proper religious order, with the ability to elect leaders, mint their own coins and fly their own flag. They settled first in Cyprus, then in Rhodes, finally establishing themselves in Malta in 1530 and remaining until the French — under Napoleon — forced them out in 1798.
Since then, the order has been based in Rome, where, in 2013, its members celebrated the 900th anniversary of its founding with a procession through St. Peter’s Square, a mass in the basilica and an audience with then-Pope Benedict XVI.
While the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity, as a Catholic religious order, it is linked to the Holy See and “therefore owes its obedience to his holiness the pope,” de Petri explained. “As far as religious matters are concerned, when we’re talking about temple matters, we act in partnership with the Vatican.”
In 2013, archaeologists working in Jerusalem’s Old City found the ruins of the order’s first hospital, dating back more than 900 years. The building, located in the heart of the Christian Quarter, was believed to have been in use between 1099 and 1291 — treating as many as 2,000 patients at a time.
These days, one of the order’s most important humanitarian projects worldwide is the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. It has operated since 1885, when Palestine was under Turkish occupation, and continues today despite the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Run by a staff of 140 doctors, nurses, orderlies and other professionals, the facility was forced to close in 1985 because of political strife, but was partially reopened later as a 28-bed maternity unit.
Since February 1990, the hospital — located only 800 meters from the birthplace of Jesus Christ — has delivered more than 75,000 babies, including 4,200 in 2017 alone; it also performs around 30,000 outpatient consultations and examinations a year. In 2013, a donation from the Belgian government allowed the facility, considered among the best in the West Bank, to open a new pediatric and neonatal care unit for people living in villages around Bethlehem.
Three Categories of Knighthood
De Petri began volunteering with the order in 1989, made his first pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, in 1991 and officially joined the SMOM in 1998. Two years later, he was elected as a member of the council of the Maltese Association, and in 2015, he became its president.
The order consists of three categories, de Petri explained.
“At the top are those men — and they’re only men — who have taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Essentially, they are monks known as Knights of Justice who have devoted themselves entirely to the order,” he said. “The third class, about 13,000 knights and dames, constitutes the vast majority of our members. I’m in the second class.”
This middle category “are those members of the third class who wish to dedicate themselves more.” He said the group — consisting 1,500 knights, including 16 in Malta — was “born out of necessity, in that the Order of Malta realized it had too few Knights of Justice to run itself properly.”
De Petri said 99 cents of every dollar the order receives in donations go directly to the hospices, hospitals, first-aid clinics and rescue operations it maintains around the world.
“Here in Malta, every member pays 400 euro per year in dues,” he said. “You’d spend far more to be a member of a country club.”
Broken Homes and Stately Palazzos
One of the many local charities the Knights of Malta funds is the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bugeja, which provides residential care for 22 teenage Maltese girls from broken homes. The girls, ages 11 to 18, all have psychological, emotional and social difficulties.
“The order has helped us with many activities which all the girls are invited to, like children’s parties and day trips to Gozo,” said Helene Micallef, an official at the home, located in Santa Venera. “At Christmas, the order gives us gift boxes for the girls. But what they look forward to most of all is the annual trip to Lourdes, where they sponsor one child every year.”
Among Malta’s 105 knights is Marquis Nicholas de Piro. The nobleman and his wife, the Marchioness Frances de Piro, were the first members of the Maltese aristocracy to open their family’s house to the public. They’ve lived in the ornate 16th-century Casa Rocca Piccola on Valletta’s Republic Street for the last 28 years; de Piro’s parents resided there for about 25 years.
“You cannot become a member of the order simply because you want to. You have to be recommended,” said de Piro, whose art-filled palazzo has become one of Valletta’s leading tourist attractions. “We have strict instructions. Once a year, the knights and dames are asked who to take in. We usually recommend one or two people.”
De Piro’s son, Anton, is also a knight. He’s traveled to Lebanon three times, helping refugees and children displaced by war.
“The head of our Grand Mastery, Andrew Bertie, had to be celibate to become the grand master. Because I’m married, I can only go so high,” said de Piro, noting that the vow of poverty isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. “The order does not have a Franciscan quality, with knights going around in sandals. But they must be prepared to serve.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.