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Mormon Church apologizes for Jewish baptisms for the dead

Volunteer's access to database revoked after Holocaust survivor's name is submitted

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 15 2012 7:44 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church has suspended access to its genealogy database for a church member who last month had a posthumous proxy baptism performed for the parents of famed Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal.

The church also issued a public apology.

"We sincerely regret that the actions of an individual member of the church led to the inappropriate submission of these names," church spokesman Scott Trotter said. "These submissions were clearly against the policy of the church. We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."

At the same time, the Huffington Post is reporting that the names of Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and his father (who was a Holocaust victim) and maternal grandfather had also been submitted for proxy baptism, although an LDS Church spokesman said those names were not actually submitted for baptism, but were simply entered into a genealogical database.

"Our system would have rejected those names had they been submitted [for baptism]," said church spokesman Michael Purdy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long asked members to engage in baptisms for the dead only for direct relatives. More specifically, according to agreements reached between LDS and Jewish officials as recently as 2010, the LDS Church has promised that the names of Holocaust victims would not be submitted for baptism for the dead in any of the church's temples unless those names belong to direct ancestors of those submitting the names.

"We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon temples," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and one of the Jewish representatives who participated in the Mormon/Jewish discussions of the matter. "Such actions make a mockery of the many meetings with the top leadership of the Mormon church dating back to 1995 that focused on the unwanted and unwarranted posthumous baptisms of Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust."

Cooper added that "the only way such insensitive practices would finally stop is if church leaders finally decided to change their practices and policies on posthumous baptisms, a move which this latest outrage proves that they are unwilling to do."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor himself, was more measured in his response.

"We believe the Mormon church is trying to act in good faith to live up to its agreement to prevent the names of any Jewish Holocaust victims from being submitted for posthumous baptism," Foxman said. "They understand that this issue is extremely important to the Jewish people, as Holocaust victims died precisely because they were Jewish. Listing Jews as 'Christian' on one of the most researched genealogical sites in the world inadvertently aids and abets denial of the Holocaust."

Foxman pledged to continue to work with LDS leaders to bring "greater understanding and respect to both of our faith communities."

"A lot more needs to be done by the LDS Church to educate its membership about its policy prohibiting names of Holocaust victims to be offered for posthumous baptism," Foxman continued. "Perhaps the ultimate solution would be for the church to revisit its theological position on posthumously baptizing Jews and believers outside the (LDS) Church, just as other religions have reconsidered centuries-old beliefs."

At the very least, Foxman hopes that the LDS Church "will increase its vigilance of its computer system, launch an education program for its members and appropriately discipline those church members who violate the policy."

According to the LDS Church Newsroom website, Latter-day Saints have been performing baptisms in church temples on behalf of their deceased relatives for nearly 180 years.

"The practice is rooted in the belief that certain sacred sacraments, such as baptism, are required to enter the kingdom of heaven and that a just God will give everyone who ever lived a fair opportunity to receive them, whether in this life or the next," the website article explains. "Church members who perform temple baptisms for their deceased relatives are motivated by love and sincere concern for the welfare of all of God's children. According to church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The church has never claimed the power to force deceased persons to become church members or Mormons, and it does not list them as such on its records. The notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to church doctrine."

According to Purdy, "the policy of the church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors. Proxy baptisms of Holocaust survivors are strictly prohibited."

In the case of the Elie Wiesel, Trotter said his name would have eventually been rejected for posthumous baptism because he is still living.

"The submitter mistakenly entered information into a field that indicated that individual was deceased," said Trotter. "Once it was determined that this person is still living, that name was removed, since we do not include information on living persons in our database."

Purdy acknowledged that names are occasionally submitted in violation of policy. Regardless of the intention of the submitter, he said, such submissions are considered "a serious breach of protocol."

According to the church website, however, such submissions "are also extremely difficult to prevent because the temple baptism process depends on voluntary compliance by millions of church members around the world. The church nearly always learns about problems after the fact."

"It is distressing when an individual willfully violates the church's policy," Purdy said, "and something that should be understood to be an offering based on love and respect becomes a source of contention. The church will continue to do all it can to prevent such instances, including denying access to these genealogical records or other privileges to those who abuse them in this way."

For Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, the whole issue is a tempest in a teapot.

"It's totally meaningless as far as I'm concerned," he said. "For someone to go into the water and say some words and be immersed — why does it matter? To me, it doesn't. I would just let it go."

Rabbi Zippel bases his feelings on the Jewish concept of conversion, which requires thorough research, intense study and approval by a rabbinical court.

"You cannot possibly have a person convert without their knowledge," he said. "So to me, when we're dealing with posthumous conversion, it's an oxymoron. If it is a conversion, it can't be posthumous; if it is posthumous, it cannot be conversion."

So as far as Rabbi Zippel is concerned, LDS baptism for the dead is "a non-issue."

"I'm not offended by it," he said, "because to me, it is meaningless. So why should I care?"

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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