Combining his love of world peace with his love of soccer, Pope Francis plans to host a celebrity soccer match this September to promote a diplomatic resolution to the ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip.
The exhibition game will take place on September 1 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome with "all-star players" like F.C. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and the legendary – and contentious - Diego Maradona taking the pitch for the event. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church personally called his two fellow countrymen to invite them to the event “to play for the peace between Israel and Palestine,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.
The match will be hosted by the Pupi Foundation, a Buenos Aires-based charity founded by the Argentine soccer player Javier “Pupi” Zanetti, as well as the Pontifical Academy for Social Science. Besides Messi and Maradona, Brazilian start Neymar is expected to play along with Yossi Benayoun, an Israeli National Team star, along with former Italian star Robert Baggio, a renowned Buddhist, and former French player Zinedine Zidane, who professes Islam.
“More than anything, the goal is to show the coexistence of different religions on the soccer field,” a spokesperson for the Pupi Foundation who asked not to be named told Fox News Latino. “It’s not about making money, we want it to make it accessible to everyone.”
He added that the funds raised in the event will go to Scholas Ocurrentes, an organization sponsored by the pope to better education standards across the world, as well as the Pupi Foundation, which focuses on family values and children's rights.
The idea of the match, officially called Partita per la Pace (Match For Peace), was communicated by Pope Francis to Zanetti when they met in Rome back in April of 2013. However, the current war between Israel and the pro-Palestinian group Hamas gives an additional impetus to the reason for the game.
The war began on July 8 with Israel's air campaign against Gaza's Hamas rulers, whom Israel blamed for the kidnapping and murder in June of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Nine days later, Israel sent in ground troops to destroy Hamas' underground cross-border tunnels constructed for attacks inside Israel.
The fighting has so far killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, Palestinian and U.N. officials say. On the Israeli side, 67 people have died, all but three of them soldiers.
The latest outbreak of fighting is the third between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since Hamas took over control of the densely-populated territory in 2007. Hamas has been consistently pushing for an end of an Israeli Gaza blockade, which Israel says is necessary to prevent the group from gaining access to weapons and munitions it deploys against Israelis.
Maradona posted on his Facebook page that he was excited and honored to be invited by the Pontiff to play for the cause in Rome.
“It is an honor to be invited by Pope #Francis, to participate in the Interreligious Match for Peace, on September 1st, at the Olympic Stadium of Rome," the Facebook post said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.