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Mormons Quiet, But Other Religions Active at Olympics - 2002-02-11

The Mormons are the dominant religious group in Utah, the western U.S. state that is hosting this year's Winter Olympics. Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and founded Salt Lake City. They are usually active in recruiting new members to their faith, and are known around the world for their missionary efforts. But during the Olympics, they are keeping a low profile in Salt Lake City. Members of other religious groups, however, are taking their message to the streets.

In downtown Salt Lake City, two young women hand out pamphlets to Olympic spectators. "Hello, this is information about Falun Dafa," says Gina, a 31-year-old immigrant from China, who now lives in Houston, Texas. She is a follower of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a movement banned in China. "Right now, we are just distributing some flyers (pamphlets) from Falun Gong to the people that come to the winter Olympic games," she says. "We want to let them know what is happening in China."

The Falun Gong followers tell anyone who will listen about China's crackdown on the movement. Some people take the pamphlet. Most decline.

Just down the street, two volunteers for an Evangelical Christian organization offer copies of the Bible to passers-by. Dave Weil is a spokesman for the group, called Bibles for America, which hopes to distribute one-million Bibles in the United States over the next 10 years. "We're here in Salt Lake City, with the desire to be where people are, to fulfill our mission," he says."Our desire is to put this unique groundbreaking Bible in the hands of people, and people are here."

More numerous on the streets of Salt Lake City, but far less obvious, are the Mormons. There are five-million Mormons in the United States, and 30 percent of them live in the state of Utah. During the Olympic games, Church officials have asked their Utah members to stop their usual recruitment efforts. The church is a major institution in Utah, and did not want to give the appearance of dominating the Olympic games.

Mike Otterson, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says "church leadership decided right from the outset [start] that we were going to be good hosts, and that our task would be to be as warm and as welcoming as possible. And, so, a part of that, of course, is to realize that people are coming here for a sporting experience, and not a religious experience."

Mr. Otterson says the LDS church and individual Mormons have helped Olympic organizers, but did this in an unobtrusive way. "We indicated that, if they wanted anything from the church, that is land or resources or volunteers or whatever, they would ask us. We would not go to them and offer. And that has been very helpful, because it established a kind of an equilibrium," he says. "It established a relationship that's appropriate. We're very sensitive to the fact that half of this community in Salt Lake City are Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Greek Orthodox and all of the others. So, we want this to be a truly community effort."

The spokesman says the church responded when asked, providing volunteers and the use of land for the Olympics.

Most visitors to Salt Lake City are here for the Winter Olympics, not to talk about religion, human rights or other issues. Those who take their message to the street usually meet with polite indifference. David Weil of Bibles For America and Gina of Falun Gong say that is to be expected, but they say enough people express interest to make their vigils on the street-corner worthwhile.