By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday dissolved the leadership of the Knights of Malta, the global Catholic religious order and humanitarian group, and installed a provisional government ahead of the election of a new Grand Master.
The change, which the pope issued in a decree, came after five years of often acrimonious debate within the order and between some top members of the old guard and the Vatican over a new constitution that some feared would weaken its sovereignty.
The group, whose formal name is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, was founded in Jerusalem nearly 1,000 years ago to provide medical aid for pilgrims in the Holy Land.
It now has a multi-million dollar budget, 13,500 members, 95,000 volunteers and 52,000 medical staff running refugee camps, drug treatment centres, disaster relief programs and clinics around the world.
The order has been very active in helping Ukrainian refugees and war victims.
It has no real territory apart from a palace and offices in Rome and a fort in Malta, but is recognised as a sovereign entity with its own passports and licence plates.
It has diplomatic relations with 110 states and permanent observer status at the United Nations, allowing to act as a neutral party in relief efforts in war zones.
Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the pope's special delegate to the order, told reporters at a briefing along with some members of the provisional government that the order's new constitution would not weaken its international sovereignty.
But as a religious order, it had to remain under the auspices of the Vatican, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a member of the working group that prepared the new constitution approved by the pope on Saturday.
Francis convoked an extraordinary general chapter for Jan. 25 to begin the process of electing a new Grand Master.
The last one, Italian Giacomo Dalla Torre, died in April.
"We hope this will re-establish unity in the order and increase its ability to serve the poor and the sick," Tomasi said.
Tomasi and the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Canadian John Dunlap, will lead the group to the general chapter. A new Grand Master is expected to be elected by March, officials said.
Under the previous constitution, the top Knights and the Grand Master were required to have noble lineage, something reformers said excluded nearly everyone except Europeans from serving in top roles.
The new constitution eliminates the nobility rule as well as the tradition of Grand Masters being elected for life.
"It will be more democratic. The question of nobility has now become secondary," Tomasi said.
Future Grand Masters will be elected for 10-year terms, renewable only once, and will have to step down at age 85.
Reformers, backed by the Vatican, had called for a more transparent government to bring in fresh blood and allow the order to better respond to the massive growth it has seen in recent years.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, Editing by Louise Heavens)