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.
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.
For the past few days, athletes and others have been marching into the center and asking for spiritual counseling in their native languages. They know that, in most cases, the staff there won't be able to oblige. That's the point.
They want to make sure each unfulfilled request is logged as evidence.
"We have kind of lost patience with it now. We have been trying to be courteous and patient, believing they would have adequate chaplains in there, but they do not," said David Willson, a consultant who has helped coordinate the Christian part of the religious services centers for the past three Olympics.
At past Games, the religious centers were near the athletes' dining halls, dormitories or other prominent places packed with people and events.
In Beijing, the nondescript white building housing the religious center is in a lonely corner of the Olympic Village, far from where athletes live. It's so hard to find, athletes, coaches and others say, that many delegations say they didn't even know it exists. That might explain why it has been practically deserted.
There are rooms at the center for the world's major religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. There's also a room for those who are Greek Orthodox.
"I feel it's all running smoothly," said Sister Yu Shuqin, who is in charge of Catholic services at the center. "What we have here is not much different from the services in Beijing outside the village."
Those who have attended services say that's the problem.
Abdullah Al-Jamral, head of the Yemeni Olympic delegation, gave mixed reviews to the Friday prayer service for Muslims. "Maybe the man speaks not good Arabic, but we know what he says," Jamral said. On the other hand, he said, the Muslim prayer room is too small; the more than 50 people who showed up on Friday could barely fit.
The Christian services on Sunday drew fewer people.
Jose Correa, the chief medical doctor for the Puerto Rico team, attended the Protestant service, which featured a sermon about the prodigal son, plus singing accompanied by an organist. But he said there were only about five other people there. "It was okay -- very organized, very good people," Correa said.
He said that while he would have preferred a sermon in Spanish or at least one given by a native English speaker, he could understand most of the service.
Others in the Olympic Village are striking out on their own.
Athletes from the Philippines have found a Catholic church outside the Olympic zone. Representatives from the Polish and Kenyan delegations had anticipated problems early on and flew in a priest and a pastor, respectively, from their home countries. The delegations are using day passes to get the clergy into the village a few times a week.
Protestant athletes on the U.S. track and field team have called in Madeline Mims, who has worked the four previous Olympics as an official chaplain. Mims said she hopes to get approval to go into the Olympic Village later this week.
Athletes and others said the U.S. Olympic Committee had complained about a month ago about the lack of foreign representation among the chaplains. But a spokesman for the committee, Darryl Seibel, said this week that it has "absolutely no concerns at all" about the issue.
As for McAdams, he said he and another athlete found a Mormon church outside the compound. He has attended and is extremely happy with the service.
"As Americans, we believe in having our free will to do as we please and express our views," McAdams said. "It has been a little awkward, but we are in a communist country and that is the way things are done."
Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.