FP Explainer

Who Are the Knights of Malta — and What Do They Want?

Who Are the Knights of Malta — and What Do They Want?

In a speech in Doha on Monday, veteran New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had been infiltrated by Christian fanatics who see themselves as modern-day Crusaders and aim to "change mosques into cathedrals." In particular, he alleged that former JSOC head Gen. Stanley McChrystal — later U.S. commander in Afghanistan — and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many other senior leaders of the command, are "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta." What was he talking about?

Not exactly clear. There’s not much evidence to suggest that the Knights of Malta are the secretive cabal of anti-Muslim fundamentalists that Hersh described. (For the record, when contacted by Foreign Policy, McChrystal said that he is not a member.) But they are certainly an anomalous presence in international politics and have provoked their share of conspiracy theories over the years.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta is a Roman Catholic organization based in Rome with around 13,000 members worldwide. The group was founded in 1048 by Amalfian merchants in Jerusalem as a monastic order that ran a hospital to tend to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. At the height of its power, the order was also tasked by Rome with the additional military function of defending Christians from the local Muslim population. The Knights of St. John were just one of a number of Christian military orders founded during this period — including the fabled but now defunct Knights of Templar.

When the Sultan of Egypt retook Jerusalem in 1291, the Knights of St. John went into exile, settling in Rhodes 20 years later. In 1523 they were forced from Rhodes by the Sultan’s forces and settled in Malta, which they ruled until they were dislodged by Napoleon’s army in 1798. The order settled in Rome in the mid-19th century, where it remains to this day.

Despite its name, the Knights haven’t had any military function since leaving Malta. Instead, the order has gone back to its charitable roots by sponsoring medical missions in more than 120 countries.

When the order was founded, knights were expected to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience upon joining. Nowadays, obedience is enough. Membership is still by invitation only, but you no longer have to be a member of the nobility. In recent years, the organization has become increasingly American in membership. The leader of the order, referred to as the prince and grand master, is elected for life in a secret conclave and must be approved by the pope.

Despite having no fixed territory besides its headquarters building in Rome, the order is considered a sovereign entity under international law. It prints its own postage stamps and coins — though these are mostly for novelty value — and enjoys observer status at the United Nations, which classifies it as a nonstate entity like the Red Cross. The Knights maintain diplomatic relations with 104 countries. The order does not have official relations with the United States, though it has offices in New York, for the United Nations delegation, and Washington, for its representation at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Because of its secretive proceedings, unique political status, and association with the Crusades, the order has been a popular target for conspiracy theorists. Alleged members have included former CIA Directors William Casey and John McCone, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, and GOP fixture Pat Buchanan, though none have ever acknowledged membership. Various theories have tied the Knights to crimes including the Kennedy assassination and spreading the AIDS virus through its clinics in Africa.

In 2006, a newspaper article in the United Arab Emirates claimed that the Knights were directly influencing U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, reprising their role in the Crusades. Following the article, Islamist websites in Egypt urged followers to attack the order’s embassy in Cairo, forcing the organization to issue a statement denying any military role.

To be fair, the Knights have been involved in their fair share of political intrigues. In 1988, the charge d’affaires at the order’s embassy in Havana confessed to being a double agent, reporting to both the CIA and Cuban intelligence. According to journalist Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater, Joseph Schmitz, a former executive at the company who also served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Defense, boasted of his membership in the Knights in his official biography. The defense contractor now known as Xe’s chief executive, Erik Prince, reportedly espoused Christian supremacist beliefs, and its contractors in Iraq used codes and insignia based on the order’s medieval compatriots, the Knights of the Templar. However, there’s no evidence to suggest the Knights of Malta had any direct influence over the company.

So while the group is, for the most part, a charitable organization with little resemblance to the sinister portrait painted by its detractors, an image-makeover might be in order as it finishes off its 10th century.