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Russia: Maltese Knights Celebrate 200th Anniversary

St Petersburg, 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Roman Catholic Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, better known as the Maltese Knights, is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its arrival in Russia. One of the big events was last weekend, when the Byzantine Imperial Charitable Ball was held in the Peterhof Palace, on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Proceeds from the event will go to the "House of Charity" a local shelter for homeless children.

The Order's Grand Knight, Henri Konstantin Paleolog III, the current head of the Byzantine imperial house, flew in from France for the occasion. In an interview with Sankt Peterburskye vedomosti, the 80-year-old Grand Knight expressed his love for Russia and his desire to help the people of St Petersburg. His ancestor, Sofia Paleolog, the daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor, who died as the Turks stormed Constantinople in 1454, married the Great Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, in 1472.

The Maltese Knights were founded in The Holy Land in the early 12th century, as an order with a mission to care for wounded knights during the Crusades.

They only came to Russia in 1798 at the invitation of Emperor Paul I, after the Order had been chased from the island of Malta by the anti-clerical tide of the French Revolution. Emperor Paul was sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, and the Jesuits also became influential in Russia at this time. By 1820, however, Russian Orthodoxy had regained the upper hand in the court of Alexander I, the son of Paul, and the Jesuits and Maltese Knights were expelled from Russia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Maltese Knights have returned to Russia, and have an active chapter in Moscow that runs an ambulance service for the poor, as well as providing other medical assistance. They are also planning to begin charitable work in St Petersburg. The Order is known world-wide for its charitable activities in the field of medical care.

The Maltese Knights have no evangelization projects here, but Russian Orthodox Church officials nevertheless regard any Catholic activity in Russia with suspicion.

In related news, the Hermitage Museum recently opened an exhibition, under the aegis of President Boris Yeltsin's office, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Russian state symbol, the double-headed eagle. The symbol originated in Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire, and came to Russia at the end of the 15th century when Sophia Palelog married Moscow Great Prince, Ivan III.

Though Sophia came to Russia in 1472, the first, preserved, recorded use of the double-headed eagle dates to 1497.

The double-headed eagle remained the Russian state emblem until 1917, after which the Bolsheviks changed it to the hammer and sickle. With the fall of the USSR, President Yeltsin decreed in November 1993 that the old tsarist symbol be brought back as the Russian state's official one.