Salt Lake City -- Researchers say that Mormons have continued to posthumously baptize Jewish Holocaust victims into their faith despite a promise to discontinue the practice.
"We are very hopeful that we will be able to convince the church to stop," Ernest Michel, chairman of the New York-based World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said Friday. If not, Michel said, his group will consider other options, "possibly legal steps."
Church spokesman Dale Bills said in a statement Friday evening that church officials "do not know what may come of these discussions, but we welcome the involvement of any who seek to resolve amicably the concerns expressed by some of our Jewish friends."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long collected names from government documents and other records worldwide for posthumous baptisms. Church members stand in to be baptized in the names of the deceased non-Mormons, a ritual the church says is required for them to reach heaven.
The practice is primarily intended to give salvation to the ancestors of Mormons, but many others are included, since the church believes that individuals' ability to choose a religion continues beyond the grave. Non-Mormon faiths have objected to the baptisms.
"It's ridiculous for people to pretend they have the key to heaven," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "And even if they say they want to do somebody a favor ... it's not a symbol of love. It's a symbol of arrogance."
In 1995, the Mormon church acceded to demands by Jewish leaders that the denomination stop posthumously baptizing Jews. But Helen Radkey, a Salt Lake City researcher, said on Friday that the process still hasn't ended.
She said she has found posthumous baptism records for 268 Dutch Jews killed in Polish concentration camps, which she described as a "small sampling." All the death camp victims, incorrectly listed in the Mormon database as dying in "Auschwitz, Germany," were posthumously baptized well after the 1995 agreement.
Mormon leaders reaffirmed the 1995 pact in December 2002, after Radkey found at least 20,000 Jews in the church's International Genealogical Index. The church says proxy baptisms have been performed for nearly every one of the 400 million names in the database.
"The Jews have to either accept what the Mormons are doing or take legal action," Radkey said.
Michel's group asked Sen. Hillary Clinton (news - web sites) to intervene in the matter and the New York Democrat met last month with Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and LDS member, though neither side would comment on the session.
The church directed its members after the 1995 agreement to not include the names of unrelated persons, celebrities and non-approved groups, such as Jewish Holocaust victims, for the baptisms, according to documentation the Mormon church provided Friday to The Associated Press.
The church also assumes that the closest living relative of the deceased being offered for proxy baptism has consented.
The pact, however, "did not guarantee that no future vicarious baptisms for deceased Jews would occur," according to church documents.
In a Nov. 14, 2003, letter, church elder D. Todd Christofferson wrote Michel that the church did not agree to find and remove the names of all deceased Jews in its database of 400 million names. "That would be an impossible undertaking," Christofferson wrote.