The Order of Malta, or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, which is the full name of the state, is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilisation.
A lay religious order of the Catholic Church since 1113AD and a subject of international law, the Sovereign Order of Malta is today a global institution offering professional medical, social and humanitarian aid. Its 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and qualified staff of 42,000 professionals – most of whom are medical personnel and paramedics – form a network that includes everything from hospitals, general medical care and social services, to emergency relief for the victims of war or famine and interventions in areas struck by natural disasters.
Its programmes – run independently or within the framework of partnerships with governments and international agencies – are currently active in 120 countries worldwide. Diplomatic relations between the then Kingdom of Serbia and the Order of Malta were established in the mid-19th century.
During the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885, the Order of Malta donated a medical train to Serbia with ten wagons, representing the Order’s first ever donation to Serbia. Diplomatic relations were interrupted after World War II and only reestablished on 1st May 2001.
Your Excellency, you recently received the title of Grand Cross pro-Merito Melitensi. How do you feel as a holder of the highest recognition used to decorate civilians by the Sovereign Order of Malta?
– It was certainly a great honour to receive the highest award pro Merito Melitensi. I consider it a strong encouragement for me, and for all my good collaborators, to continue and intensify the humanitarian and social work of our Embassy in Belgrade.
The Order of Malta is most recognisable in Serbia due to its humanitarian work, especially in terms of support for the poor and the sick. In 2017, among other things, you helped to ensure a number of seriously ill patients received top-notch medical treatment and care. What are your plans for 2018?
– You refer to the “Make a WISH to the Order of Malta” project. This project of ours is in its fourth year of realisation. It has been and is always moving to see through the eyes of the children, and their parents, an unexpected joy… so we decided to propose the same format again for 2018, though this time perhaps not necessarily limiting it to children only.
A lay religious order of the Catholic Church since 1113 and a subject of international law, the Sovereign Order of Malta is today a global institution offering professional medical, social and humanitarian aid. Its 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and qualified staff of 42,000 professionals
How do you collect the funds that are used by the Order of Malta to help poor and sick people worldwide?
– Primarily thanks to my colleagues who collaborate in our diplomatic mission, as well as available friends and acquaintances, who – as in the case of the project “A hot meal in a cold winter” – have organised Charity Dinners to support the projects. We can also count on the support of other institutions: this is the case with the Government of Taiwan, which was a generous donor of our “Make a WISH to the Order of Malta” project for the third year.
Serbia is one of 106 countries worldwide to have established diplomatic relations with the Sovereign Order of Malta. How would you describe those relations today?
– I am pleased to be able to correct you because now there are 107 countries. In fact, this happened at the end of 2017, with the signing of diplomatic relations with Germany, where we are very present with relevant activities at both the national and international levels of Malteser, a body responsible for the concrete implementation of cooperation projects. The increase in the number of countries recognising our Sovereign Order shows ever-increasing dynamics, even among countries where the Orthodox Church is prevalent, and I believe that this year we will achieve further significant developments with a country that has a strong Orthodox presence.
You are one of the longest-serving ambassadors in Serbia. How do you see the changes in Serbia and the region compared to the period when you arrived in Belgrade?
– Serbia is an interesting and fascinating country, with a rich and complex history characterised by many lights and, as with all peoples, also shadows caused by periods of suffering during the wars and due to the long dictatorship. I see a strong desire to emerge, to fight to improve economic and social conditions and to keep pace with the times. Even in the bureaucracy, which is afflicted by ancient slowness and complications, I have noticed some improvements in recent years, which need to be accelerated. We have experienced this directly with some of our humanitarian projects being slowed by an outdated mentality and obsolete procedures. I trust that, in the interest of a modern and European Serbia, these remnants of the vetero-communist state-ism will quickly disappear.
Serbia is an interesting and fascinating country, with a rich and complex history characterised by many lights and, as with all peoples, also shadows caused by periods of suffering during the wars and due to the long dictatorship
The Serbian National Assembly established a Friendship group with the Sovereign Order of Malta a few years ago. It is today presided over by the assembly’s deputy speaker. How satisfied are you with the work of this group?
– I am very satisfied! The first President, the Hon. Prof. Nenad Prokić opened a path of mutual knowledge, friendship and collaboration several years ago. I remember the first meeting in the National Assembly, during which someone asked – arousing surprise and bewilderment – if the Order of Malta was a sort of “Masonic order”! Few people knew us then for what we have been for almost a thousand years and what we represent in the 120 countries where we are present.
This parliamentary group of friendship has made and continues to make, an essential contribution to the correct presentation of the reality of the Order of Malta, its history and its system of values and ideals. Prokić is today actually our Project Manager, running the “Make a WISH to the Order of Malta” project.
I have a cordial friendship with the current President of the Parliamentary Group of Friendship, Deputy Speaker of the Assembly, the Hon. Vladimir Marinković. An example of constructive interaction is represented by this group’s support for the signing of the bilateral Postal agreement.
Can you explain why the so-called “Postal agreement” is important for the Order of Malta?
– I would like to answer the question as to “why Serbia does not consider it important?”, but I’ll try to explain myself better. The Sovereign Order of Malta has its own government, embassies and permanent representative offices, issues its own diplomatic and service passports, and also has its own philatelic issues.
Besides the fact that these issues have a relevant philatelic value all over the world, we can send and receive a post with almost 100 countries on the basis of agreements recognising the reciprocal stamps affixed to correspondence.
In the absence of such specific agreements, as it is known, it is not possible to exchange correspondence. In 2018, I would like us to reach the point of signing the agreement, even if, in fairness, I have to say that nobody – in government or elsewhere – has ever said no… but we are still awaiting the desired final result.
How connected to the Balkans is the Order of Malta and how does your Order view the fact that two of the largest relics of the Order of Malta are held in Montenegro?
– Every ambassador thinks primarily of carrying out their work dedicated to bilateral relations in the best possible way. Among those of us who are colleagues in the region of Southeast Europe, there is continuous dialogue and comparison, for obvious reasons of closeness.
From a spiritual perspective, the venerated relic of Our Lady of Philerme, protector of the Order, which is kept in Cetinje in Montenegro, represents a religious reference of the highest significance. On the ground of collaboration in humanitarian initiatives, for example, we are checking the possibility of extending participation in summer camps of “Creative Holidays”, which have been organised for five years by our Embassy in Bulgaria, to include Serbian children.
The successor to the last Serbian Dynasty, Prince Alexander II Karađorđević, is a knight of the highest rank in your Order. How is your cooperation with him?
– Excellent! Prince Alexander was the “patron” of the first edition of the “Make a WISH” project when we provided tangible aid to almost 2,000 Serbian children, who wanted a PC or a van to share to go to school, or who needed electric wheelchairs for those suffering from disabilities, or bicycles etc. The Prince led the Evaluation Committee, which selected the “WISH” to be satisfied with the thousands of letters received by the Embassy.
Given that you are a Catholic religious order, how do you cooperate with other religious communities in Serbia, primarily the Serbian Orthodox Church?
– It is undeniable that we are, proudly, also a Catholic Order. But everywhere in the world, we try to help those who suffer or are in need, without asking what religion they belong to or what political belief they hold. We were told three years ago by Dr Daniel Galun (of the Clinical Centre of Serbia) that a Social Centre run by Orthodox Sisters near Paraćin – Saint Petka – had many needs.
During that year we provided them with required medical equipment, food, consumables, industrial washing machines and dryers, and even an ambulance. I had the honour and the opportunity to present the “Make a WISH” project to H.H. Patriarch Irinej and receive his blessings.
Ignorance and hunger are the two most common things in the world! In the 120 countries where we are present and active, we work in the open: our objectives, our millenary values, spiritual and moral, and our style of commitment and work are known, clear and unequivocal
How do you respond to the claim that the Order of Malta gathers together people who are “those who rule the world from the shadows”?
– Is it enough if I answer by saying that so many people say stupid things, equally coarse and groundless! Ignorance and hunger are the two most common things in the world! In the 120 countries where we are present and active, we work in the open: our objectives, our millenary values, spiritual and moral, and our style of commitment and work are known, clear and unequivocal.
Those who are familiar with the situation draw attention to the importance of the upcoming changes to the Constitution of the Order, which will allegedly modernise one of the “oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilisation”. What do you expect from this process?
– Our Constitutional Charter is still the one elaborated in 1961 and subsequently only amended in some points, until 1997. We have to review and strengthen some of the rules that regulate the life of members belonging to the “first class”, that of the Professed (those who make the three votes), which have remained unchanged for over 50 years. There are numerous certainties that accompany this process of reforming our Constitutional Charter and Code.
Our sovereignty and independence will have to be maintained and, with the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany on 15th November, this has been confirmed very well. Another certainty is that we have been, and will continue to be, a religious Order. In some press, we could read that the Order could be transformed into an NGO. In all these months nobody has proposed or even considered that!
How much progress has been made in the process of forming the Group of Friends of the Order of Malta in Serbia, which should develop in the future to become the Association of the Knights of the Order in Serbia?
– Today in Serbia there are only two Knights who are members of the Order: the Catholic Archbishop of Belgrade, H.E. Mons. Stanislav Hočevar, and Prince Alexander II Karađorđević. Establishing an Association of Knights of the Order requires at least 10 of them. There is an idea to set up an Order of Malta Friendship Group, to welcome potential future Knights and young volunteers who are ready to collaborate on humanitarian activities. I hope we will be able to see this group formed in Serbia during this year.
Will you again invite members of the diplomatic corps accredited in Serbia to attend an opera at the National Theatre on your National Day this year?
– We are in contact with the Director of the Theatre, Maestro Dejan Savić, and some artists in order to see if we will be able to bring international artists to Belgrade again this year. It is not yet certain, but I am working on that.