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Knights of Malta, noble order, would-be sovereign state, marks its 900 years with Vatican Mass

Members of the Knights of Malta walk in procession towards St. Peter's Basilica during a celebration to mark the 900th anniversary of the Order of the Knights of Malta, at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. The order traces its history to the 11th century with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It is the last of the great lay chivalrous military orders like the Knights Templars that combined religious fervor with fierce military might to protect and expand Christendom from Islam's advance during the Crusades. In February 1113, Pope Paschal II issued a papal bull recognizing the order as independent from bishops or secular authorities, reason for Saturday's anniversary celebrations at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)The Associated Press

The Knights of Malta, one of the most peculiar organizations in the world, is marking its 900th birthday with a colorful procession through St. Peter's Square, a Mass in the basilica and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

The Knights are at once a Catholic religious order, an aid group that runs soup kitchens, hospitals and ambulance services around the globe, and a sovereign entity that prints its own passports and enjoys diplomatic relations with 104 countries — yet has no country to call its own.

Some 4,000 people — volunteers and members, draped in their trademark black cloaks with a white, eight-pointed Maltese Cross on the front — processed through St. Peter's Square Saturday for the Mass marking the 900th anniversary of the order's recognition by the Holy See.