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Japanese bishop uses sport to promote religious tolerance

Annual InterFaith Ekiden relay race brings together participants from various religions correspondent, Kyoto correspondent, Kyoto

Updated: April 24, 2015 03:03 PM GMT
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Japanese bishop uses sport to promote religious tolerance

Bishop Kenijiro Koriyama, left, poses for a photo with relay teammate Nadjet Amri during the InterFaith Ekiden in Kyoto (Photo courtesy of Katorikku Shimbun)

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At age 72, Bishop Kenjiro Koriyama doesn’t run as much as he used to do. But earlier this week, he made an exception for the sake of a good cause.

The bishop, along with representatives from 14 organizations and a broad spectrum of religions, participated in the annual InterFaith Ekiden, a marathon-length relay race held each year to promote unity and respect among people of different creeds.

Responsible for just under 10 kilometers in the four-person relay that covers the same ground as a traditional marathon, Bishop Koriyama — the oldest participant in the event — was slated for the third leg.

In cold rain that did little to dampen the spirits of the runners, the bishop made a determined start to the race.

But as time passed the spectators, reporters and the runner of the team’s final leg — Nadjet Amri, a Muslim woman from Luxembourg — began to worry. The mood at the relay points was generally festive as racers exchanged smiles and hugs while passing their team’s sash, used instead of a baton, to the next runner.

Event staffers discussed the option of sending Amri on her way even though the bishop had not yet arrived.

But Bishop Koriyama finally came into view and was greeted with a resounding cheer. He posed for a quick photo with his teammate before she carried on with the race.

He noted after the race that discourse about Islam in Japan is often negative, and that it was “very moving” for him to end his leg by passing the sash to a Muslim.

“Peace starts from respecting each other’s differences,” Bishop Koriyama said. “These differences contribute to a rich experience of life.”

The bishop has completed four marathons in the past, but this race was a bit more challenging.

“I’m as slow as a tortoise,” he said, adding that he worried about slowing his team down and had considered not participating in the event.

InterFaith Ekiden came into being when a group of Buddhists from Japan participated in the “Run for a United World” InterFaith Marathon in Luxemburg, held as part of the ING Night Marathon in June 2013. They organized the first InterFaith Ekiden in Kyoto last year.

The day before this year’s race, all the runners gathered in prayer for world peace and the continued recovery from the "Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster."

Tomonobu Suzukawa, 46, a Buddhist priest, summed up the motivation for all participants at the end of the race.

“We all share a common goal. We run as if we are all working together to create a work of art.”

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