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FACTBOX - Who are the Knights of Malta?

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic order which operates as global charity, has its headquarters on one of Rome’s most exclusive streets, the cobble-stoned Via Condotti where red-and-white flags bearing the Maltese Cross fly above the entrance.

Members of the Order of the Knights of Malta arrive in St. Peter Basilica for their 900th anniversary at the Vatican February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

The leadership of the order -- formally, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta -- has been locked in a battle with the Vatican for the past two months.

Here are some facts about the order:

- The Knights of Malta started in 1048 as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a monastic community which ran a hospital for pilgrims in the Holy Land. In 1113, it became a lay religious order, with all knights bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It later became a military order to defend its centres and access roads.

- In 1291, after the loss of the Holy Land, it moved to the island of Cyprus. In 1310, it moved to Rhodes and became a major naval force in the Mediterranean. The Knights were defeated by the forces of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1523 and moved to Malta, where they stayed until 1798, when they were forced to leave by Napoleon.

- The order settled definitively in Rome in 1834 and since then it has concentrated on its original mission, mostly through its humanitarian aid arm, Maltaser International.

- Today the institution is a worldwide charity that counts 13,000 members, 80,000 volunteers and some 25,000 paid employees, most of them medical staff.

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- The top leadership consists of the Grand Master, the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure (finance minister). They sit above a Sovereign Council, made up of six members.

- The all-male top leaders are not clerics, but they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope.

- The institution has the status of a sovereign entity, maintaining diplomatic ties with more than 100 states and the European Union. It also has permanent observer status at the United Nations.

Sources: Sovereign Order of Malta

Reporting By Philip Pullella