Mormon church, Jewish leaders tackle proxy baptism

Associated Press/September 2, 2010

Salt Lake City - The Mormon church says it has changed its genealogical database to better prevent the names of Jews Holocaust victims from being submitted for posthumous baptism by proxy.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a coalition of Jewish leaders said a new computer system and policy changes related to the practice should resolve a yearslong disagreement over the baptisms.

Mormons believe posthumous baptism by proxy provides an opportunity for deceased persons to receive the Gospel in the afterlife. Baptisms are performed in Mormon temples with members immersing themselves in a baptismal pool as proxies for others. The names used in the ceremonies are drawn from a church-run genealogical database.

Faithful Mormons use the practice primarily to have their ancestors baptized into the 180-year-old church and believe the ceremonies reunite families in the afterlife.

But the practice also includes proxy rites for others around the world from all faith traditions. The church also believes departed souls can accept or reject the baptismal rites in the afterlife and contends the offerings are not intended to offend anyone.

Jews are offended by the idea that Mormons are trying to alter the religion of Holocaust victims, who were murdered because of their religion.

In 1995, the church inked an agreement with the New York City-based American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors that prevented Mormons from performing baptisms or other rites for Holocaust victims, except in the very rare instances when they have living descendants who are Mormon. The church also agreed to remove the names of Holocaust victims already in the massive database.

Database monitoring since then, however, has found that the agreement had failed to prevent both the submission of names and the baptismal rites from continuing. That sparked a dispute between the Mormons and the American Gathering over a breech of the agreement. The Jewish group withdrew from discussions with the church in 2008, saying the issue could not be resolved.

Church officials say conversations were renewed last year after a coalition of Jewish rabbis and community leaders led by former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams were invited to Salt Lake City to tour a newly constructed temple and its downtown genealogy library to better understand the process.

Under new church polices, members will be required to certify names submitted to the database for baptism. Further safeguards include monitoring those names for submissions that don't meet policy standards and the removal of records, church spokesman Michael Purdy said in story posted on a church-owned newspaper's website.

Abrams, who discussed the baptisms issue with American Gathering leader Ernest Michel before talking with Mormon leaders, said he believes the Mormon church is sincere in trying to address Jewish concerns. Abrams said church leaders have assured him that members who fail to comply with church baptism policies will face sanctions that include losing their access to church temples.

"They have made this extraordinary exception to the doctrine for Holocaust victims," Abrams told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Their doctrine seeks to offer baptism to the souls of all people who have ever lived on the face of the earth and one grouping has been carved out. That is an act of extraordinary sensitivity and commitment, which is understood and appreciated by the Jewish community."

A telephone message left at Michel's office in New York City was not immediately returned Wednesday.

New Jersey-based Jewish genealogy expert Gary Mokotoff, who was part of the American Gathering group that had negotiated with the church, said the rules and safeguards will correct past problems - if they are enforced.

Past promises of reprimands and the removal of names have not always been kept and recent checks of the database by independent Salt Lake City researcher, Helen Radkey, have found baptisms were performed for Holocaust victims as recently as July, he said.

"This has been going on so long that you have to be suspicious," said Mokotoff. "Qualified Mormons have access to the complete database so they can do proper temple work, there should be some way Jewish people can confirm that they are abiding by the 1995 agreement."

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