The Knights of Malta, currently celebrating the 900th anniversary of their founding, are to open soup kitchens in the UK and other European countries.

The Hospitallers - formed to provide hospital services for the crusaders - are opening soup kitchens and shelters across Britain and the rest of Europe in response to rising poverty and homelessness caused by the economic crisis, the Daily Telegraph reports.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta was formally recognised with a 'bull' (decree) issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113.

The order now has 98,000 members and volunteers that provide humanitarian aid around the globe.

But Grand Master Matthew Festing, a former Sotheby's auctioneer, said the knights are now concentrating more on Europe, as austerity cuts and a deep recession swell the ranks of the jobless, the homeless and the drug-dependant.

In the UK it is opening shelters for the homeless and mobile soup kitchens in Oxford and Brighton.

Similar facilities will be set up in London and Glasgow next month.

The order has a presence in 120 countries including Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Its doctors and nurses still run a maternity hospital in Bethlehem, providing free care for a largely Muslim population, an abiding legacy of its original mission.

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