Runners taking part in a previous John Paul II Pilgrimage Peace Marathon, held annually in Jerusalem. Photo: Sasson Tiram.The Gospel teaches, “…for those that are last will be first, and the first, last”. Hopefully, however, that doesn’t apply to the participants in one of the most spiritual events on the running calendar: the fifth annual John Paul II Pilgrimage Peace Marathon.

On the morning of April 18th, the eve of Passover, the Peace Marathon – actually a 10 kilometer run – will set off with 100 Italian athletes carrying the torch that received the blessing of Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. They will be accompanied by Israeli and Palestinian runners.

A delegation of 1,000 pilgrims, headed by senior Vatican official Cardinal Camillo Ruini, is expected to arrive in Israel before Passover.

The run starts at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and ends on the lawns of Hutzot Hayotzer, the Arts and Crafts Lane, at the foot of the Old City walls of Jerusalem.

The run is a new initiative by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism in cooperation with the travel agencies Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi and Ovunque Viaggi. The run aims to encourage Catholic pilgrimage tourism to the Holy Land and promote peace in the region.

Opera Romana is the official Vatican travel agency and the largest Catholic travel agency in the world. Ovunque Viaggi is an Italian travel agency specializing in sports tourism

A message from the Pope will be read at the ceremony at the end of the run, in the presence of Cardinal Rumini and representatives from the Ministry of Tourism and the Jerusalem Municipality. Representatives from the Ministry of Tourism will distribute medals made especially for the run, bearing the image of the late Pope John Paul II.

Recently, Opera Romana announced the operation of six weekly charter flights from Italy to Israel. These flights will provide an answer to the increase in Catholic tourism from Italy: an increase of 70% in incoming tourism from Italy was recorded in February 2008, with over 5,000 tourists visiting Israel, as opposed to 3,000 in February 2007.

Also in cooperation with Opera Romana and Ovunque Viaggi, the Ministry of Tourism, announced the International Arad-Masada Half Marathon, taking place on April 16th.

The 25 km run follows Route 3199 as it descends from Arad towards Masada, ending at the western gate of Masada. The Ministry reports that over 50 percent occupancy rates were recorded in the Arad area in advance of the half-marathon, an increase of over 70% on regular occupancy rates.