Strange Politics: The Club that the World Treats Like a Country

We have covered the Strange Politics of some very small countries here at Cat Flag. We’ve talked about the Vatican City, the tiny global headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church tucked away in less than half a square kilometer of land in Rome. We’ve talked about Sealand, the quasi-legal micro-nation on a platform of the coast of England. Today, however, we are talking about a “country” that has no sovereign territory of any kind, whatsoever. It has only two citizens, one of whom is the only person in the world with a permanent passport issued by this “country”. Yet it is an officially-recognized UN permanent observer nation and it maintains embassies in countries around the world.

This “country” is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or as it is officially called:

*deep breath*

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta


The Order of Malta, as its website calls it for simplicity’s sake, is treated in international law as a sovereign entity equal to any nation with actual soil. Its headquarters in Rome and its embassies around the world are given the same special legal status by their host nations as the embassies of countries like the United States, Russia, China, India, Ethiopia, or France. Yet when you look at how it actually functions in the real world, it is basically a fraternity that focuses most of its time and energy to charitable causes, like the Freemasons, Kiwanis Club, or Knights of Columbus.

How did this happen?

The story of the Order begins in 1048, when the Muslim ruler of Egypt granted the Catholic Church the right to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat pilgrims in the city. During the First Crusade, a Benedictine monk known as Blessed Gerard¬†founded the Order of St. John of Jerusalem as a new monastic order that ran the hospital and cared for the wounded and sick. In the violent, chaotic times of the Crusades, it became clear that the hospital was in danger, so some of the knights serving in the Holy Land joined the order and swore to defend it. Appropriately enough, these knights came to be known as the “Knights Hospitaller”.

While the First Crusade was successful in conquering the Holy Land for Christendom, over the next two centuries the surrounding Muslim nations continuously wore away at the Christian holdings, and successive Crusades failed to hold back this tide. By 1291, all the Crusaders had been kicked out of the Middle East, including the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights set up shop in exile on the island of Cyprus, ruled at the time by the friendly House of Lusignan. However, this initial friendliness quickly soured as a dynastic dispute within the Cypriot royal family pitted the Knights Hospitaller against another, perhaps more famous order of Crusaders, the Knights Templar.

These conflicts led the Knights Hospitaller to decide they needed a base under their own control where they could operate freely. So, in 1306, they just up and invaded the island of Rhodes, conquering it after four years’ fighting. For more than two centuries, the knights ruled Rhodes and functioned as the island’s government. They used it as a major naval base to raid the coasts of Turkey, Syria and Egypt. In 1523, a certain Ottoman sultan by the name of Suleiman the Magnificent got a bit fed up with these pirates, and captured Rhodes, forcing the knights into exile again.

Seven years later, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V decided to grant the tiny yet strategically-located islands of Malta to the Knights. Perhaps he felt sorry for the knights, or perhaps the devoutly Catholic emperor wanted to do something nice for the Church as an apology for sacking Rome and taking the Pope prisoner.

In any case, the knights would rule Malta for 268 years, building fortresses, churches, palaces, and, of course, hospitals. Under the knights’ rule, Malta was neutral in all wars between Christian nations, but played a key role in the wars against the Ottoman Turkish navy and North African pirates. They also very briefly tried their hand at colonialism, taking possession of several islands in the Caribbean for a few years. However, not all was well with the Order. The Protestant Reformation led to a schism, with the Order’s German branch adopting Lutheranism and consequently being expelled, though it continues to operate to this day as a separate organization.

The end of the knights’ rule in Malta came when Napoleon Bonaparte led a French invasion and conquest of the islands in 1798. The British were not about to let the French hold such a vital position in the Mediterranean, and the Maltese were none too happy with the French occupation, so the British helped liberate Malta from the French and the islanders offered their homeland to the British for protection. Malta would remain a British colony until 1964. Of course, since they happened to rule Malta, the British royals decided to create an order of chivalry of their own modeled on the Knights Hospitaller.

As for the original order that started it all, they were now in exile in Italy, eventually setting up their headquarters in Rome. They still exist today, with 135,000 members operating in 120 countries. While the Order no longer governs Rhodes, nor Malta, nor any Caribbean islands, nor any territory for that matter, it is still treated as a “sovereign subject of international law” recognized by 108 countries and the EU, mainly because of its historical status as an ex-national government. In this sense, it is something like a government-in-exile, a “government” that has lost control of its country, but continues to claim to be the legitimate ruler of that country, and in some cases continues to be recognized as such by foreign powers. Except the Order does not lay claim to Malta, and in fact has concluded treaties with it.

What does this Order do, then?

In practice, the Order of Malta today is mainly focused on providing medical services and humanitarian aid to victims of war or natural disaster, and to serving the needs of the poor, homeless, elderly, and disabled. In recent years, they have been operating in Syria and Iraq to help the victims of ISIS. The unique legal status of their members as sort-of diplomats from a sort-of country is actually quite useful to their operations in this regard, giving them some legal cover from potentially hostile local authorities. In particular, the fact that the order maintains a policy of complete neutrality means that its members operating in war zones are seen as more trustworthy than, say, official humanitarian missions from the United States or Russia or China.

Like any charity, its funding comes from a mix of grants from national governments or international organizations (such as the UN or EU) and private donations. They have a variety of chapters around the world, with the branch in the United States operating as the Order of Malta American Association.

Like the Freemasons, the Order continues to engage in elaborate ceremonial pageantry honoring its history, with members organized into three classes that are subdivided into multiple categories, with the highest-ranking members called “Knights of Justice”. The leader of the Order is called the Prince and Grand Master, who is elected to serve for life by the Order’s government. He is made a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church as part of his position, and in order to qualify for the position, he must be of noble birth.

Yes, I DID just say the Order has a government. Why wouldn’t it? The Order’s members elect a Sovereign Council, led by the Grand Master, who handle the executive functions of the government and have legislative power over matters that don’t involve the Order’s constitution (oh, by the way, the Order has a constitution). The members also elect a Chapter General that handles constitutional questions. Then there are the Courts of the Order, because, yes, the Order has its own courts.

Quite the elaborate framework for an organization that is mainly focused on helping the sick and needy.

So, how do I join?

Well, here’s the bad news. You can’t just apply for membership; nobody can. Membership is by invitation only. However, the Order does accept volunteers to help them carry out their charitable missions, with 80,000 volunteers helping the order with all manner of things from disaster relief to homeless aid programs to an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, a sacred site of the Catholic faith in France known for its healing waters. The Order also employs 42,000 doctors, nurses, and other personnel. So, I guess there’s that.

What can I say? When it comes to politics, just when you think you’ve seen the strangest things can get, you learn that it can get even stranger.

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