The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (Italian: Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta) (known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta [SMOM], Order of Malta or Knights of Malta for short) is a Roman Catholic order based in Rome, Italy. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a sovereign subject of international law.


It takes its origins from the Knights Hospitaller, an organization founded in Jerusalem in 1050 as an Amalfitan hospital to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, it became a Catholic military order under its own charter. Following the loss of Christian held territories of the Holy Land to Muslims, the Order operated from Rhodes (1310–1523), and later from Malta (1530–1798), over which it was sovereign.

Although this state came to an end with the ejection of the Order from Malta by Napoleon, the Order as such survived. It retains its claims of sovereignty under international law and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. SMOM is considered to be the main successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller.

Today the order has 12,500 members; 80,000 permanent volunteers; and 20,000 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics. The goal is to assist the elderly, the handicapped, refugees, children, the homeless, those with terminal illness and leprosy in five continents of the world, without distinction of race or religion. In several countries—including France, Germany and Ireland—the local associations of the Order are important providers of first aid training, first aid services and emergency medical services. Through its worldwide relief corps—Malteser International—the Order is also engaged to aid victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.

Unlike the Holy See, which is sovereign over the Vatican City, SMOM has no other sovereign territory, yet it does have full diplomatic relations, including embassies, with 100 states, and is in more informal relationship with five others. As a sovereign body it has the right to issues its own stamps, coins, passports, license plates, and maintain a military force, and does so at its Rome headquarters.

Governance of the OrderEdit

The proceedings of the Order are governed by its Constitutional Charter and the Order's Code. It is divided internationally into six territorial Grand Priories, six Sub-Priories, and 47 national associations.

The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. Electors in the Council include the members of the Sovereign Council, other office-holders and representatives of the members of the Order. The Grand Master is aided by the Sovereign Council (the government of the Order), which is elected by the Chapter General, the legislative body of the Order. The Chapter General meets every five years; at each meeting, all seats of the Sovereign Council are up for election. The Sovereign Council includes six members and four High Officers: the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure. The Grand Commander is the chief religious officer of the Order and serves as "Interim Lieutenant" during a vacancy in the office of Grand Master. The Grand Chancellor, whose office includes those of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the head of the executive branch; he is responsible for the Diplomatic Missions of the Order and relations with the national Associations. The Grand Hospitaller's responsibilities include the offices of Minister for Humanitarian Action and Minister for International Cooperation; he coordinates the Order's humanitarian and charitable activities. Finally, the Receiver of the Common Treasure is the Minister of Finance and Budget; he directs the administration of the finances and property of the Order.

Membership in the order is divided into the following classes: knights of justice or "profess knights" who take religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and form what amounts to a religious order (until the 1990s membership in this class was restricted to members of families with noble titles); knights of obedience (similarly restricted, these knights make a promise, rather than a vow, of obedience); knights of honor and devotion, knights of grace and devotion and knights of magistral grace, all of these classes made up of members who take no vows, and who had to show a decreasingly extensive history of nobility (knights of magistral grace do not have to prove any noble lineage, and are the most common form of knights in the United States). Within each class of knights there are ranks ranging from bailiff grand cross (the highest) through knights grand cross, knights commanders, knights officers and knights—thus one could be a "knight commander of grace and devotion," or a "bailiff grand cross of justice." A final rank of "donat" is offered to some who join the order in the class of "justice" but who are not knights.

Worldwide, there are over 12,500 knights and dames, a small minority of whom are professed religious. Membership of the Order is by invitation only and solicitations are not entertained.

The Order's finances are audited by a Board of Auditors, which includes a President and four Councillors, all elected by the Chapter General. The Order's judicial powers are exercised by a group of Magistral Courts, whose judges are appointed by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council.

Military Corps of the Sovereign Military Order of MaltaEdit

Commonly referred to as The Military Corps of the Order, the military force in its present form was raised in 1877 and has enjoyed a continuous existence since that date, armed and uniformed members of the Corps are mainly used in ceremonial duties. By agreement with the Italian Government in 1877 the Military Corps came into being under the official title of 'Auxiliary Military Corps of the Italian Army - Sovereign Military Order of Malta', to assist the Italian army's injured or sick (in peace or war). In 1908 the agreement was modified so that the Corps, whilst remaining the official military unit of the Order, and under the command of the Order, also became a fully integral part of the Italian army.

Hospital Trains
The Corps has become known in mainland Europe for its operation of hospital trains, a service which was carried out intensively during both World Wars. These hospital trains may have functions from the purely practical (providing shelter to refugees in carriages) to the relatively technical (with minor surgical procedures carried out on board).

Military Aircraft
As part of the post-World War Two peace treaty, 36 military aircraft of the Italian Air Force were transferred to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and flew under the Order's flag to allow the Military Corps to continue its medical function within the (then limited) Italian armed forces. One of these aircraft, still in Order colours, is preserved in the Italian Museum of Aeronautics, whilst the other 35 have been withdrawn from service. Today, the Order continues to operate aircraft through its Military Corps, and these carry the military roundel of the Order on their fuselage (a red circle with a white Maltese cross in the centre, its points reaching to, or almost to, the edge of the circle); however, these aircraft are usually loaned by or hired from the Italian Air Force.


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