Knights of Malta to open soup kitchens in Britain

They were once warrior monks who tended to fallen crusaders and sick Christian pilgrims amid the burning desert scrub of the Holy Land.

Matthew Festing, Grand Master of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta Photo: AP

By Nick Squires, Rome
5:16PM GMT 05 Feb 2013

But nearly 1,000 years later, the Knights of Malta, once known as the Hospitallers, are opening soup kitchens and shelters across Britain and the rest of Europe in response to rising poverty and homelessness caused by the economic crisis.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta – as the chivalric order is officially known – is this week celebrating 900 years since it was given official recognition by the Vatican, with a 'bull' or decree issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113, in the midst of the crusades.

The order's 98,000 members and volunteers, who long ago swapped their chain mail and tunics for doctor's coats and emergency worker overalls.

They have traditionally provided humanitarian help in war zones, earthquakes and floods around the world, from Congo and Rwanda to Haiti and Afghanistan.

But they are now concentrating more and more on Europe, as austerity cuts and a deep recession swell the ranks of the jobless, the homeless and the drug-dependant.

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The order, which is based in Rome and works in 120 countries around the world, identifies deepening poverty in Europe as one of its three main areas of concerns, along with the refugee crisis in Syria and the chaos in the Democratic Republic of Congo after years of war.

The knights – a Catholic organisation that is different from the more familiar Order of St John – is ramping up its activities in the UK, opening shelters for the homeless and mobile soup kitchens in Oxford and Brighton.

Similar facilities will be set up in London and Glasgow next month.

"We are observing with great concern the fact that the economic crisis is leading to greater numbers of unemployed, more homeless and more people falling through the social net," Albrecht Boeselager, a senior member of the order who carries the title Grand Hospitaller, told The Daily Telegraph in Rome on Tuesday.

"The number of people who come to our soup kitchens and medical clinics is increasing dramatically. In the 27 nations of Europe, there are now 26 million people out of work.

"We're establishing a stronger presence in Britain than ever before. Until now our main activity in the UK was to run homes for the elderly."

The principles upon which the order was founded in the Holy Land in the 12th century – charity and compassion for the sick and vulnerable – are now being applied to the British high street.

"We're adapting to current necessities, as we have done for a thousand years," said Philippa Leslie, a British spokeswoman for the order. "We've been doing weekly street runs in Oxford and Brighton for the past year and we are about to move into London and Glasgow."

After the crusaders' attempts to take Jerusalem failed, the Knights were forced to move to Cyprus, from there to Rhodes for 200 years, and finally to Malta, which they ruled as an independent sovereign state for three centuries.

Napoleon expelled the order from the Mediterranean island in 1798. It was eventually re-established in Rome as a sovereign entity – a state without any territory.

The order issues its own stamps, passports and coins and has diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries, as well as observer status at the United Nations.

The current head of the order is British – Matthew Festing, 63, a former Sotheby's auctioneer, bears the official title His Most Eminent Highness, The Prince and Grand Master of the Knights of Malta.

Despite being represented by an eight-pointed, crusader-style cross, the order works in dozens of Muslim countries, including Syria and Lebanon.

Its doctors and nurses still run a maternity hospital in Bethlehem, providing free care for a largely Muslim population, an abiding legacy of its original mission.

Knights of Malta to open soup kitchens in Britain - Telegraph