Keeping apace with ‘Pace!’

More than 300 Israelis, Palestinians, Italians and Haitians run to promote peace

Israeli and Bethlehem soccer players 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Melanie Lidman)
Israeli and Bethlehem soccer players 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Melanie Lidman)
Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only eight kilometers apart, but politics and security measures make the distance feel much greater. In an effort to close the distance between the two cities, a handful of Israeli runners joined more than 300 Palestinian, Italian and Haitian runners for the Eighth Annual John Paul II Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run on Monday morning.
“People here live close to each other, but they don’t get to meet,” said run organizer Father Caesar Atuire, the head of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a Vaticanbased group that brings 50,000 Italian pilgrims to Israel every year. “Some Israelis running today said they have never been to Bethlehem [Israeli runners were given special permission to enter Bethlehem, which is normally off limits to Israelis, as it is fully under Palestinian Authority control]. It’s about getting people to cross borders and get them out of their comfort zones. Sometimes when there are conflicts and prejudices, they don’t leave their borders,” Atuire added.
The run was inspired by the late pope John Paul II, who was committed to conflict resolution through shared activities.
“The pope was always talking about bridges to peace, and sports is one of these bridges,” said Jack Hasbun, one of the coordinators of the marathon associated with the Franciscan order.
Also joining the race were half a dozen members of the Unione Sportiva Cremonese from Cremona, Italy, who played friendly matches against Bethlehem’s youth soccer team and a team fielded from the Tourism Ministry’s soccer club. More than 20 Haitian volunteers involved in the rebuilding effort in Haiti also joined the event.
“This is very exciting. We’re used to seeing this stuff in the Bible, and now we can see it with our own eyes,” said Marie A, one of the Haitian volunteers.
She noted that Haiti was also an area with many conflicts but that sports “brings people together as brothers and sisters and unites people.”
Runners chanted “Pace! Pace!” (“Peace! Peace!”) as they passed through the checkpoint at Rachel’s Crossing, where soldiers allowed the runners to pass through as a group with special tags. The run started at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and ended at the Notre Dame Church outside Jerusalem’s Old City.
Monsignor Claudio Paganini from Rome was the most popular runner, as he ran in his traditional black coat and priest’s collar. Experience from his five prior John Paul II runs taught him to keep his shorts on underneath the heavy black coat in case he got hot.
Ahuva Zaken, the deputy director general of the Tourism Ministry, applauded the run for giving pilgrims a unique glimpse into Israel.
“We are interested in seeing this grow,” she said.
“This connects sports to religion; and for the tourists that choose to come to Israel, they can enjoy the whole package.”
“Pilgrims should be an instrument of peace,” said Atuire. “Let us meet together on the sporting field; we’ll meet on the same level and learn to respect each other.” •