Vatican cricket team to play Muslim, Argentine slum clubs

VATICAN CITY (AP) The Vatican is expanding the reach of its cricket club this season, hosting a Muslim team from Yorkshire and a club from the same Buenos Aires slum where Jorge Mario Bergoglio ministered before becoming Pope Francis.

The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture announced the lineup of matches Thursday. They include rematches of the teams the St. Peter's Cricket Club played last year during its inaugural tour of Britain: The Church of England XI and the Royal Household cricket club.

But in a sign that the Vatican's initiative of blending sport with faith is spreading beyond just improved relations with the Anglican Church, the Vatican team on Oct. 17 is due to play Mount CC of Yorkshire, a Muslim team made up of mostly Pakistanis, at Rome's Campanelle Cricket Ground.

''It's Muslims and Catholics playing together - a bridge being made in sport between believers,'' said the Rev. Robert McCullouch, who spent four decades working in Pakistan and is now based in Rome with his St. Columban missionary order.

The other key match is scheduled for Oct. 14 with the Caacupe de la Villa club from the Villa 21 slum of Buenos Aires where Francis used to work. Legend has it that the head of the Argentine cricket association proposed a cricket club for the shantytown in 2009, and the slum's pastor, ''Padre Pepe,'' took him up on the idea.

The then-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, gave his approval since he knew well Padre Pepe and is a longtime believer in the role that parish-based sports can have for disadvantaged kids.

''They are coming here because they want to see their former archbishop,'' said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, undersecretary in the Pontifical Council for Culture in charge of its sports initiatives.

Daniel Juarez, coordinator of the Argentina-based group ''Cricket Without Borders'' who helped arrange the match with the Vatican, said the group plans to fly to Rome on Oct. 10, tour the city and play the Vatican club on the 14th. Juarez said the cricket program is aimed at social inclusion.

''It's not that they just play,'' he told The Associated Press in Buenos Aires. ''We give them training, we teach them English and help them to keep studying so they can get work.''

The 18 team members, who also hail from Cricket San Juan Bosco, from the parish of the Carcova slum, are between 12 and 22 years old, though most are around 16 or younger.

The St. Peter's Cricket Club was founded in 2013, the brainchild of the Australian ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy. It is made up of seminarians and young priests, most from Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere, who are training at Rome's pontifical universities.

In soccer-mad Europe, its aim is to forge ties with teams of other faiths and be ambassadors of the Catholic Church in parts of the world where cricket vies with soccer as the most popular game.

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AP Writer Almudena Calatrava contributed from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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