A top leader of the LDS Church has called allegations that the church is "buying" the names of thousands of dead Russian Orthodox members in order to baptize them as Mormons "absurd."

Proxy baptism of the dead in the faith's temples "is a religious practice that dates back to antiquity," according to a press release issued Friday by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The doctrine is central to the mission of the church, which includes "redeeming the dead" through proxy ordinances Latter-day Saints believe lead to exaltation in God's kingdom in the afterlife.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, executive director of the church's Family and Church History Department, was quoted in the release as saying such baptisms have been practiced by the church almost since its founding in 1830. The release was in response to news reports of dismay by Russian Orthodox leaders in Moscow and New York regarding the recent procurement of names by the church in a Russian town.

While the church routinely seeks out names, birth and death dates of the deceased to add to its world-famous family history database, LDS church members also perform baptisms by proxy in the faith's temples for millions of such deceased persons.

The release did not give any details about whether the church had informed Russian officials that the names it was procuring for family history research would also become candidates for proxy baptism in LDS temples.

When asked whether that was the case, church spokesman Dale Bills said before the microfilming of records begins, "we clearly inform custodians of genealogical records who we are and what use we will make of the filmed records. Such discussion is a standard element of all negotiations with record-holding organizations." He declined to offer additional comment on the Russian records in question.

Newspaper account

A story in The Moscow Observer dated Nov. 23 was headlined "Russians fume as Mormons 'buy souls.' " It said the Russian Orthodox church "has expressed its outrage at what it claims is a Mormon scheme to buy up the names of dead Russians in order to baptize 'dead souls in their faith.' "

It says that in an archive in the town of Nizhni Novgorod, east of Moscow, the church "has paid ten U.S. cents for each page of thousands of names of dead people dating mainly from the late eighteenth century to be put on a microfilm.

"The idea, the last-ditch attempt of a cash-strapped archive to fund urgent preservation work, has caused a fury among the predominantly Orthodox nation," the paper reported. It said microfilming had ceased while officials examine the issue more closely.

That report and others it has generated are "disappointing," according to the press release quoting Elder Christofferson, because "it inadequately explains and mischaracterizes not only our religious practice but also our cooperative records preservation work."

"The work going on in Russia is consistent with what we have been doing with archivists the world over for more than half a century," he said. "Countless numbers of irreplaceable records will be lost to posterity if they are not microfilmed," and the church provides access to billions of names, along with their birth and death dates, free of charge to anyone who seeks the information, he said.

The press release offered no other comment on payment to Russian archive officials for the names the church has gleaned from the town's records. Bills said the payments were "merely intended to reimburse the archive for its expenses." He said he couldn't elaborate on the arrangements between Russian officials and the church.

Past controversy

The church has come under fire within the past decade from Jewish groups who said the church's collection of the names of Jewish people, many of them Holocaust victims who were subsequently baptized by proxy, was an affront to their faith.

As a result, the church made an agreement in 1995 with a number of Jewish groups that it would no longer baptize Jewish Holocaust victims — other than direct ancestors of LDS members — and that it would remove such names from its International Genealogical Index (IGI) when it was made aware that they were still listed there.

Gary Mokotoff, publisher of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, said while "non-Mormons don't like this concept, in the case of Jews it's super sensitive. Baptism is a very ugly word to a Jewish person, far beyond Russian Orthodox or Catholic objection, because it reminds us of the persecution of Jews by Christians" who were anciently "given the choice of being converted to Christianity or being killed."

Mokotoff, who was directly involved in the 1995 agreement with the LDS Church, said he believes church officials agreed to stop the practice as a result of understanding that sensitivity. He said many people have subsequently "mischaracterized the agreement."

"Since 1995, everything they have promised to do they have done." Complaints to the contrary "aren't true," he said. Motokoff says he accesses LDS Church records online about 10 times a year and has personally made requests to have Jewish names removed from the records. He knows of others who have done the same. Every time he has checked to see if the names were removed, "I have found they were honoring their agreement" and the names are removed "quite quickly — within days."

Motokoff says he occasionally gets claims from people who say such legendary Jewish figures as David Ben Gurion, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein are still listed, but "that was only true prior to 1995. There's a misconception that the church is obligated to scour the IGI looking for Jewish names — but the agreement states only that if they are made aware of it they will delete the names."

The church issued its press release early Friday, with a statement from Elder Christofferson saying that "Surely no one believes this practice forces a change in religious identity of any soul, living or dead. We certainly do not claim that."

That statement, and others regarding the doctrinal rationale for LDS proxy baptism, was deleted from a corrected copy of the release issued later in the day.

Few complaints

The Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary for research and planning with the National Council of Churches, said she is aware of the protest by Russian Orthodox officials regarding LDS proxy baptism because that church is a member of the council. She believes the protest "is largely due to their acquaintance with Mormon missionaries in Eastern Europe and Russian itself. It's a bigger concern there among Russian Orthodox there than it is here in the U.S."

She said she is unaware of any other faith among the 35-member denominations on the council that has taken an official stance against posthumous baptism by Latter-day Saints for deceased members of their faiths.

The Rev. Lindner said she agreed with LDS spokesman Bills in his characterization that the protest regarding proxy baptism does not represent a new trend among mainstream faiths. "I don't think we see widespread evidence of this . . . Americans have really quite a remarkable elasticity about their concepts of what's intruding."

Bills said the church "has been microfilming family history records around the world for decades. In all of that work, complaints have been few and far between."

As the LDS Church — with more than 11 million members worldwide — continues to grow in size and influence, the Rev. Lindner said proxy baptism and the church's "aggressive proselyting" may "become more of a factor, and we shouldn't be surprised to hear a bit more about it."

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