ROME – “Run Forrest, Run!” is perhaps one of the most memorable lines of the 1994 classic “Forrest Gump” starring Tom Hanks. The line was used as encouragement for the protagonist to run from a group of bullies who wanted to beat him up.
On Saturday, a group of U.S. seminarians studying in Rome’s North American College (NAC) will be channeling Forrest Gump, taking part in a 150-mile relay run across Italy, but for a very different reason. They won’t be running for their lives, but to raise awareness of millions of lives currently endangered by a different kind of bully.
Known as the “Roman Runners,” the team of 12 seminarians will unite the east and west coasts of Italy in support of Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Each runner will complete 15-mile intervals, and their hope is to raise at least $12,000 in donations being processed through the international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The money raised will be used “to help our suffering brothers and sisters in the faith in Iraq and Syria,” according to the dedicated web page created for the occasion.
“I will likely never meet the people I am running for, but I can still love them and help them through my actions,” said seminarian Joseph Caraway.
This is the fourth edition of the Roman Runners, and the second consecutive year the proceeds will go to Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Speaking with Crux on Friday, the day before the run, the seminarian from the Diocese of Lake Charles, LA, also said that the decision to repeat this year’s proceeds for the same beneficiaries as last year came to the group of runners in prayer. They had worked with ACN the year before, and the relationship was so good they decided to do the same this time around.
“We asked them what was an important cause for this time around, and they gave us a list,” he said. “Syria and Iraq were on it. I communicated the possibilities to the rest of the runners, we took them to prayer, and Syria and Iraq kept coming up. So we decided on it, a few months back. Now it all seems providential, with Syria being back in the news.”
Next week, Pope Francis will go to a Roman parish to pray the rosary calling for peace. According to a Vatican statement, peace in Syria will be his particular intention. In July, the pontiff will be going to the southern Italian city of Bari, where he’ll host an ecumenical day of prayer and reflection for peace in the Middle East.
“The Holy Spirit is at work in the Church, asking so many people to pray for the same intention,” Caraway said.
The seminarians who will participate in the event, 10 as runners and two as drivers, come “from all over the U.S.,” including Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Iowa, and Arlington, Virginia.
Throughout the year, these priests-to-be run around Rome, and according to Caraway, who’s organizing the Roman Runners this year, they always pray for different intentions, offering their exercise “as a form of prayer.” This weekend’s relay is an extension of their usual exercise.
The two teams will meet halfway through, “and since this is Italy, we’ll celebrate sharing a pizza.”
“Loving your neighbor can come through a small act of charity, and these acts of charity unite the universal Church,” Caraway said. “Something as simple as running has opened the door for individuals to give and support people they would never have had the opportunity to help otherwise.”
In Iraq, according to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Christians and other minorities have been victims of genocide at the hands of the Islamic extremist group known as ISIS.
Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced in recent years, mostly languishing in camps and cramped apartments, either in neighboring Lebanon or in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
In 2014, the Islamic State pillaged the Nineveh Plains, a region in northeast Iraq that has historically been inhabited predominantly by Christian communities. While ISIS has now been driven out, the situation remains fragile, with many ethnic and religious minorities unsure whether they should risk returning and current residents wondering if the worst is still to come.
Last March, Christian activists warned that Jihadists allied with Turkey are hunting down religious minorities to kill them in Syria’s northwest. They claimed Turkey is using hardline jihadist proxies, including Islamic State and al-Qaida militants, to eliminate Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities along its border.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, thousands of Christian families remain trapped by the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq, a conflict that has “resulted in chaos and despair,” according to a statement on their site.
Every day, Aid to the Church in Need reports, Christians in the region face violence, death, fear, and homelessness, with supplies running out and people lacking the most basic commodities such as food, milk, diapers, clothing, shelter and medical supplies.