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ROME (Reuters) - They will not be drawing swords like their predecessors did 1,000 years ago, but battle lines have been drawn between conservatives and reformers in the Knights of Malta, the Catholic chivalric order and global charity.
Its former leader, Briton Matthew Festing, has returned to Rome for a decisive boardroom confrontation over its future this Saturday, defying a request to stay away by a representative of Pope Francis, who ordered his resignation in January.
Festing will be among 56 men who will vote on the leadership of an organisation with a budget of billions of dollars and 13,000 members, 80,000 volunteers and 20,000 paid medical staff running refugee camps, drug treatment centres, disaster relief programmes and clinics around the world.
His supporters have been moving behind the scenes to reassert their power and perhaps even try to reinstate him, against the wishes of the Vatican, which demanded he step down after he fired the organisation's number two.
Reformers, backed by the Vatican, want to re-vamp the order's constitution to make its government more transparent and better able to respond to the massive growth it has seen it recent years. They also want to make it possible for commoners to reach top positions.
Under the current monarchical hierarchy, the top Knights are required to have noble lineage.
Dressed in black robes with a white Maltese cross on them, the 56 electors, known as the Council Complete of State, will meet in the Magistral Villa on Rome's Aventine Hill with a view of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the distance.
The infighting has demoralised the frontline volunteers and medical workers in the organisation, and, according to the order's health minister, Dominique Prince de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, led to a drop in donations.
The Knights of Malta is unique in the Catholic world because it is at once a religious order made up mostly of non-clerics, a chivalric order and a sovereign entity that is run like a small monarchy and recognised by 106 states
On Jan 24, Festing, 67, became the first Grand Master in several centuries of the Order of Malta, which was founded in 1048 to provide protection and medical aid for pilgrims in the Holy Land, to step down instead of ruling for life.
In December, Festing and conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the order's chaplain and a vocal critic of Pope Francis, had summarily fired Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, who was administratively Festing's number two.
They accused Boeselager of having violated Catholic teaching by turning a blind eye to the distribution of condoms in an aid project in Myanmar when he was in a previous post.
Boeselager retorted that it was a ruse for a power grab. In an unprecedented intervention, the pope appointed a commission to investigate the events.
Festing, who like other "First Class Knights," had taken a vow of chastity, poverty and "service to the Holy Father", told members not to cooperate with the commission, although many did. Festing said it was unwarranted interference in the order's internal affairs.
The pope sided with Boeselager and ordered Festing to resign. Boeselager, a German, was re-instated as Grand Chancellor and a "Lieutenant ad interim" was named to run the order.
The Boeselager bloc backs the pope's call for the order to chose an interim leader with a one-year term to enact constitutional changes before electing the next Grand Master.
But Festing, who returned to Britain, said in an interview published in the Catholic Herald on March 23 that he did not rule out being re-elected. He is one of 12 eligible candidates for Grand Master, all of whom must have taken vows to be "professed knights" and come from noble heritage.
"I have no intention of running a campaign. However, if they re-elect me, I would have to consider agreeing to it," he said.
On April 15, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the Vatican's deputy secretary of state, who the pope named to be "special delegate" to the Knights after Festing was ousted, ordered the former Grand Master not to travel to Rome for the election.
"Your presence would re-open wounds, only recently healed, and would prevent the event taking place in an atmosphere of peace and regained harmony," Becciu said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters from a Vatican source.
Becciu said the pope "shared" his decision and asked Festing to stay away as "an act of obedience."
But three days before the vote, Festing told organisers he would attend, effectively disobeying a direct papal order and throwing the entire election into uncertainty. He has since been seen in Rome by members of the order.
"Until 24 hours ago, we had several possible scenarios," a senior source in the order said. "But now there is no agreement and anything can happen."
Editing by Philippa Fletcher