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Some Olympians Dissatisfied With Religious Center

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 14, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- The Olympic Village's religious center has become the target of a quiet protest by athletes, coaches and other delegates who say its staffing and services fall woefully short of the promises made by Chinese organizers.

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Previous Olympic hosts welcomed foreign chaplains, but China has banned them from living with the athletes. It has instead pledged that it will provide equivalent services from its pool of state-employed pastors, imams and other clerics.

Josh McAdams, 28, an American athlete who runs the 3,000-meter steeplechase, said members of the U.S. track and field team have been "quite dissatisfied" with the center. Not only are the services conducted in broken English, but also most staff members do not have experience with sports or with foreigners.

"They should allow chaplains -- perhaps one from each country -- to be in the village. . . . This is important, because for many of us, athletics is not only physical and mental but spiritual," said McAdams, who is Mormon.

The quality of the religious services center came into sharper focus on Saturday after the fatal attack against Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team, at a popular tourist spot in Beijing. To help athletes with their grief, the U.S. team had to scramble for official permission to get a chaplain who spoke English fluently into the village.

Phelim Kine, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said the ban on foreign chaplains runs counter to the Olympic charter's "dedication to fundamental ethical principals and freedom of expression." He also said the International Olympic Committee shares the blame.

"This is yet another example of IOC's failure to enforce and to stand up to China's efforts to roll back basic freedoms that have been taken granted at previous Olympics," Kine said.

China's ruling Communist Party is suspicious of any cause that could compete with its authority, including organized religion. Officially, the party allows worship only at registered churches belonging to a state-controlled organization; non-registered places of worship are closely monitored. The party also bans foreign chaplains' holding services without government permission or proselytizing on Chinese soil.

In the run-up to the Games, Chinese Olympic officials clashed behind closed doors with their international counterparts over the sensitive topic of whether to allow in foreign chaplains.

In Athens in 2004, more than 100 religious leaders speaking several dozen languages were stationed in the Olympic Village. Many had extensive experience counseling elite athletes facing extreme pressure.

While China held its ground on foreign clerics, it promised that it would provide its own chaplains and that athletes would be allowed to worship just as they would in their home countries.

But visitors to the center say that the majority of the 65 staff members there are student volunteers and that, at best, they can speak broken English, French, Italian, Korean and Arabic. All are Chinese.


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