Page One Feature
Knights of Malta Seek Respect
From U.N. as Bona Fide Nation
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
ROME -- As he walks through his Renaissance headquarters, Grand
Chancellor Bailiff Ambassador Count Carlo Marullo di Condojanni, Prince of
Casalnuovo, is flanked by the aged paintings of battles that his
predecessors won against infidel Saracens.
But now Count Marullo and his tiny nation are on a different kind of
The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of
Rhodes and of Malta, over whose government Count Marullo presides, is busy
charming the world into recognizing the Roman Catholic order, considered a
state by the Vatican but lacking two things other countries have: citizens
It isn't an entirely quixotic pursuit. Already 87 countries maintain
diplomatic ties with Count Marullo's order, which calls itself SMOM on
license plates and runs dozens of hospitals and clinics throughout the
world with membership fees and charitable contributions. A descendant of
medieval crusaders in Palestine, the order is currently based above a
Hermes boutique in the magnificent Palazzo Malta at 68 via dei Condotti
The grand chancellor, who was born a knight and taught portfolio
management at a Sicilian university before joining the SMOM government as
receiver of the common treasure, now aims for the 100-recognitions mark --
a magic number that, he believes, would get SMOM into the United Nations
and confer upon it unquestioned legitimacy.
"We hope to get to 100 by the end of next year," says the 55-year-old
count, an imposing man who usually wears navy-blue suits and speaks with
the gruff accent of his native Sicily. He seems unfazed by the U.N.'s
current reluctance to admit the Knights of Malta even as a nonmember
observer state, the status enjoyed by Switzerland and the Vatican. "You
know, we are unique in world history and diplomacy," the grand chancellor
says, his tanned face displaying its usual grin.
He has scored a few recent victories. Moldova and the exiled government
of Afghanistan recently established diplomatic relations with the knights.
Explains a senior official at Moldova's foreign ministry in the capital
city of Chisinau: "They are the ones who asked us for relations -- and we
decided to agree because they've shown us such a long list of other nations
that already recognize them." Also, Bolivia and Lithuania have agreed to
recognize SMOM postage stamps.
In its 15th- to 18th-century age of glory, the order's possessions
extended as far as St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, as the knights amassed
vast riches through piracy and the slave trade. It all ended for them in
1798 when Napoleon unceremoniously expelled the knights from their base on
the island of Malta, which today is an unrelated republic.
That complication -- followed by a controversial sojourn under the rule
of the non-Catholic Czar Paul I of Russia -- didn't stop SMOM from issuing
passports, postage stamps and even its own currency. At via Condotti's
Magisterial Post Office, on the nation's ground floor, a notice posts the
current exchange rate: 1 SMOM scudo consists of 12 tari or 240 grani, and
is equal to 480 Italian lire, or about 21 U.S. cents.
A saleswoman, however, warns curious tourists that SMOM stamps, while
valid for sending letters to Macao and Burkina Faso, can't be used for mail
to Italy, the U.S. and most Western nations. You don't see too many scudi
in world trade, but she sells elaborately decorated SMOM coins as
Count Marullo, whose 12,000 knights world-wide include King Juan Carlos
of Spain and former Italian Premiers Francesco Cossiga and Giulio
Andreotti, is bent on making the world pay more serious attention to all
these trappings of sovereignty.
Diplomacy requires a busy schedule of international lobbying. The grand
chancellor spent recent months jetting from Rome to a summit of 11 European
leaders (including the presidents of Germany and Austria) in Spain, and to
a SMOM-sponsored international medical conference in Malta and a summit of
SMOM ambassadors in Milan.
At the U.N., General Assembly spokeswoman Susan Markham says there's no
rule that says the Knights will be upgraded if they secure 100
recognitions. In fact, when SMOM became a permanent observer at the U.N. in
1994, "we made it quite clear to them that we see them as an entity, not as
a state," Ms. Markham stresses. (Permanent observer status is also enjoyed
by the African-Asian Legal Consultative Committee and the International
Seabed Authority, among others.)
Count Marullo doesn't have much patience. So, at the U.N. Millennium
Summit last year, he made sure to squeeze into the official group photo of
assembled world leaders. His presence, once discovered, embarrassed the
U.N.'s protocol officers. "He was in the photo, and it was a mistake," says
Ms. Markham. "He wasn't supposed to be there."
Gian Luigi Rondi, a consultor of SMOM's Sovereign Council, blames these
complaints on "internal infighting at the U.N." and points out that the
millennium picture includes another interloper, Yasser Arafat. (Palestine
isn't recognized as a state by the U.N., either.) "No one complained about
Arafat," Mr. Rondi protests. "And he is a little less antique than we
From time to time SMOM plays a role on the diplomatic stage. The Czech
Republic says it's grateful for the knights' mediation, which led to the
freeing of a Czech lawmaker and a former Prague student leader imprisoned
by Cuba for meeting anti-Communist dissidents earlier this year. SMOM "was
more helpful than some others" after receiving a confidential request for
help from Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, says a foreign ministry
spokeswoman in Prague.
Both Prague and Havana maintain full relations with the Knights, who do
charity work on the historically Catholic island and enjoy cordial ties
with the Castro regime. "We were asked for help -- and as you can see the
two Czech citizens now are free," boasts Count Marullo. "We do these things
in a very reserved way, which is surely the most efficient," he adds.
SMOM has attracted numerous imitators. In the U.S., several similarly
sounding "Orders of St. John" sell knighthoods and worthless passports to
Americans obsessed with noble titles, sometimes for as much as $50,000,
says John Shine, director of administration at the American Association of
SMOM in New York. The SMOM Knights of Malta, on the other hand, pay only
$2,000 upon acceptance and $1,250 annually thereafter. There are 2,300 of
them in the U.S., more than anywhere else in the world except Italy.
While most of their brethren in Europe inherited their knighthoods,
Americans are admitted on merit, after they have been nominated by three
members and prove themselves by doing charity work. "There's something in
the American psyche that makes people want to join," says Mr. Shine.
"America doesn't have royalty and becoming a Knight or a Dame is seen here
as making one quasi-noble."
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at