JERUSALEM — In front of Zion Gate in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, just a short walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, lies a soccer pitch. Standing on the field, nestled beside an Armenian church, you can see the city walls and the rising minarets of mosques.

This pitch and the soccer academy surrounding it were built with funds donated by several notable figures in Italian sports, from soccer coach Carlo Ancelotti to Olympic swimmer Federica Pellegrini and motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi. The academy is run by the Italian soccer team AS Roma, and provides a unique experience in this divided city: Children from all backgrounds and religions — Arab, Israeli, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian alike — play and train here together.

An opportunity to get to know each other better in a land where communication is often complicated.

"With the recent participation of the Armenian community, we've added another important piece of the cultural puzzle we're trying to build here," says Samuele Giannetti, vice president of the Roma Club Jerusalem. He and his organization have worked for years on this multicultural project, seeking to build dialogue on the soccer field and prove that people of all cultures can live together in harmony in Jerusalem.

For Giannetti and the academy, sport can be an antidote to ignorance, suspicion, and mistrust. "It's an instrument of reciprocal contact that goes far beyond the sport itself," says Giannetti. "If this pitch didn't exist these kids would never meet each other, whereas now they are bringing home an example of intercultural dialogue."

Photo: Gerusalemme Roma Club

Hosted in the Armenian quarter, the academy was originally proposed by the Italian consulate in Jerusalem, which promoted the project with the support of the city's Armenian Patriarchate. "The school offers these children an opportunity to get to know each other better in a land where communication is often complicated," says Fabio Sokolowicz, the Italian consul.

Fabio Sonnino, president of the Roma Club Jerusalem, says the modest effort may at least offer another way into the peace process. "Our project is just a drop in the ocean," he says, "but it's a start."

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