ROME - This year’s edition of the Via Pacis half-marathon for peace will spur athletes from all backgrounds to flex not only their muscles, but their ability to reach beyond cultural and religious divides.

Co-sponsored by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates to Italy as part of the country’s ongoing “Year of Tolerance” - which was inaugurated during Pope Francis’s Feb. 3-5 visit to the UAE - this year’s interreligious race will take place Sept. 22, beginning in front of St. Peter’s Square and taking runners by key locations for different religious communities in Rome.

With backing by other high-profile organizations such as the European Commission, the Italian Paralympic Committee and the Pontifical Council for Culture, this edition of the “Race for Peace” will also see the participation of members of Athletica Vaticana, the Vatican’s first-ever sports association, established in January.

With some 7,000 participants over the past three years, not including those who signed up for a simultaneous 5K “fun run,” the event has drawn participants from various religious communities, as well as the general public, including some who are physically or intellectually disabled.

Religious communities involved in the planning process include Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Orthodox, Waldensians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, among others.

In comments to Crux, Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, undersecretary of the Culture council and head of the office’s section on sport, said collaboration with other religious communities in organizing the event is essential to maintaining the spirit of the event, but this year’s partnership with the UAE’s embassy to Italy is especially significant.

“This is indeed a very powerful message,” he said, adding that “it was not by chance” that a joint declaration on interreligious tolerance and fraternity was signed by Pope Francis and Ahmed El Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University.

Calling the UAE “a place of tolerance in the Middle East,” Melchor noted that theological dialogue can often be difficult, “whereas culture and sport are a very easy way of connecting people. When you share your passion for sport, you are on another level and sport really can unite people.”

Sports, he said, is a “soft power” which forms part of the diplomatic strategy of the Holy See. Pointing to Athletica Vaticana, he said the organization has been present at several competitions and games with small European states, and they hope to form an Olympic team in the future.

“We want to bring the message of Pope Francis, of a church that goes out, that doesn’t remain blocked inside the safety walls, who is not afraid to expose itself in being among people,” Melchor said, describing sports as “a universal language that can be understood by everyone and that really unites people.”

When people run together, “they share passion, they share effort, they share the wish to win, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Speaking alongside Melchor at the Sept. 9 presentation of the Via Pacis, Omar Alshamsi, who presented his credentials as ambassador of UAE to Italy in May, said he is happy to begin his time in Rome with an event “which unites our two peoples,” and brings together differing cultures and religions.

Recalling the visit of Francis to the UAE in February, Alshamsi said his country was “honored” to begin their Year of Tolerance with the pope’s visit and the signing of the joint declaration, which he said is aimed at “building relationships” and “countering extremism.”

Noting that the 2019 summer Special Olympics were held in Abu Dhabi, he said “there is no doubt that these sporting events serve to strengthen relations between our countries,” and because of this, they are important “on a global level.”

“I wish this initiative of the half-marathon in Rome a great success,” Alshamsi said, voicing his hope that the embassy will sponsor the race next year.

Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, called the race a success “which continues to be enriched each year.”

In sports, differences are forgotten and there “are never enemies, but adversaries” who are not fought with, but competed with in a bid to “create bonds and overcome differences, also cultural differences,” for the sake of a common goal.

Raggi voiced her commitment to fighting against intolerance by using sports, including the upcoming race, to build “stronger bridges between cultures and religions.”

“Rome is and must be, and wants to continue to be, a crossroads of cultures (and) a city of tolerance,” she said.

Camille Chenaox, a member of Athletica Vaticana, told Crux that while she will not be participating in the half-marathon, as she prefers to focus on winning shorter races, she believes the Vatican presence in the race is “fundamental,” because “it offers an important message and testimony.”

“It’s very important to show that we are here and to transmit the values of peace and coexisting together while sharing this passion,” she said, calling the partnership with the UAE “a sign of openness (and) of an exchange between cultures and traditions.”

This collaboration, she said, is a vehicle for this cultural and interreligious exchange, “so it’s very nice. I like sports a lot, so knowing that sports can help in having relationships with others, is very important.”