The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (Latin: Supremus Ordo Militaris Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodius et Melitensis), also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), Order of Malta, is a Roman Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature, founded circa 1048 in Jerusalem, Kingdom of Jerusalem, by Gerard Thom, as the world's oldest and surviving order of chivalry. Headquartered in Palazzo Malta in Rome, it is widely considered a sovereign subject of international law.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is the modern continuation of the medieval Order of Saint John of Jerusalem founded in circa 1048, tracing back to the Amalfitan hospital Fraternitas Hospitalaria, founded circa 1050 in Jerusalem, Fatimid Caliphate, to provide care for sick and poor pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, the members realized the need to become militarized to protect Christian interests and pilgrims against Muslim attacks and became chartered as a military order. The Order was formally recognised as sovereign in the year 1113 by Pope Paschal II, known as the Knights Hospitaller. Following the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Mamluk Sultanate, the order operated from Cyprus (1291-1310), Rhodes (1310–1523), Malta (1530–1798) over which it was sovereign, and from Palazzo Malta in Rome from 1834 until present day.
Although its sovereign territory of the island of Malta (1530-1798) was lost due to the seizure by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Order moved to Rome and as such survived. It retains its claims of sovereignty under international law, including permanent observer status at the United Nations, issuing its own international passports, currency and postal stamps with its formal white or gold Maltese cross insignia. The Order's military, three brigades, is stationed throughout Italy and is closely liaisoned with the Italian army. The Order venerates as patroness Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of "Our Lady of Mount Philermos".
Today, the order has about 13,000 members, including Knights and Dames as well as auxiliary members; 80,000 permanent volunteers; and 20,000 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics in more than 120 countries. The purpose is to assist the children, homeless, handicapped, elderly, refugees, those with terminal illness and leprosy around the world without distinction of ethnicity or religion. In several countries, including Australia, France, Germany and Ireland, local associations of the order are important providers of medical emergency first aid services and training. Through its worldwide relief corps, Malteser International, the order aids victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.