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Jewish, Mormon leaders issue joint statement

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 4:12 a.m. MDT

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, and Jewish spokesman Ernest W. Michel shake hands in 2005.  (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, and Jewish spokesman Ernest W. Michel shake hands in 2005. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

NEW YORK — Jewish and Mormon leaders issued a joint statement Wednesday acknowledging that concerns between members of both groups over a sensitive doctrinal issue have been eliminated.

According to the statement, which was issued to news media simultaneously in New York and Salt Lake City, The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants had pointed out to the LDS Church that its practice of proxy baptism had "unintentionally caused pain" because of the inclusion of names of Holocaust victims in the religious rite.

Wednesday's statement indicates that a breakthrough has been possible because of new computer systems that change the way in which such names are submitted. It credits "dialogue and extraordinary efforts of the church," as well as "policy initiatives" with resolving the issue.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, and Jewish spokesman Ernest W. Michel shake hands in 2005.  (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, and Jewish spokesman Ernest W. Michel shake hands in 2005. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including important programs of humanitarian aid across the world," the statement says.

LDS leaders have explained that, from its early history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught that those who have died without a knowledge or understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ will receive that knowledge in the next life.

In Mormon practice, baptismal services may be performed for these people with the understanding that the departed soul retains the right to accept or reject that offering made in their behalf. The church encourages its own members to perform such proxy baptisms for their departed ancestors.

Church leaders note that their policy specifically precludes proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims unless the name is submitted by an immediate family member or permission is granted from the most immediate family members.

Jewish and Mormon leaders have discussed the issue intermittently for the past 15 years. In 1995, the church removed the names of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust victims from its genealogical database in acknowledgement of the unique sensitivity reflected by the Holocaust.

However, despite repeated efforts, it proved impossible to prevent names of Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors from being submitted for baptisms, since any member of the church could submit such names.

Last year, it appeared any kind of accommodation was unlikely after the American Gathering held a news conference in New York that criticized the church's practice and said that attempts to find a solution had failed. That seemed to end past accommodations and any further discussion of the issue.

However, the church had long believed that the new computer systems would help resolve or reduce the matter even without a formal understanding and without compromising its doctrine.

When the Mormon Oquirrh Mountain Temple was opened to the public in Salt Lake City in June last year, a delegation of several prominent Jewish leaders from New York, organized by former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, were among those invited to tour the facility. Visits included the area of the temple where proxy baptisms were performed.

Later, they visited the Family History Library where explanations were given of the new computer systems, which were then just being launched. The visit prompted discussion that brought about the statement released Wednesday.

While both groups acknowledge that no system is foolproof, the 2009 visit and Wednesday's joint statement have rekindled a belief that satisfactory solutions can be achieved if future issues arise.

Several safeguards have also been initiated. Church members are now asked to certify that their submissions for proxy baptisms meet church policy. Should any inappropriate submissions be identified, the new system allows the record of the baptism to be removed from the public database and the submitters are contacted to ensure such errors are not repeated. To that end, church staff also regularly search records to identify inappropriate submissions and prevent such baptisms from being performed.

Tension between the American Gathering and the church over the past 15 years has been a rare occurrence in what has been a long and friendly history between Jews and Mormons. Wednesday's statement says "goodwill and friendship have marked the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jewish people." It adds that the church has appreciated the support that the state of Israel has given the church in helping establish the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Both groups believe that closer cooperation in programs of humanitarian aid will be enhanced across the world.

Michael Purdy is in the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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