According to Helen Radkey, a former Mormon, the names of several prominent Holocaust victims were recently placed in the church’s genealogical database and slated for baptism. Mormons regularly perform a ritual known as posthumous proxy baptisms, in which a church member baptizes on behalf of the deceased. The LDS church installed the practice to give those who were unable to embrace Mormonism in their lifetimes another chance to access the Kingdom of Heaven, but some see it as disrespectful of other religions. While the deceased must choose to embrace the yoke of Mormonism for the practice to take effect, according to church doctrine, Jewish authorities assert it undermines their faith and attempts to alter the religion of Holocaust victims who died al kiddush Hashem (i.e. as martyrs of the Jewish faith).
Friction between the Jewish and Mormon communities on the issue extends to the early 90s, when Jews were increasingly used as the subjects of vicarious baptisms. Leaders of both faiths reached a rapprochement in 1995, whereupon the LDS church agreed to only submit the names of Jewish ancestors of living Mormons for baptisms. The Church found it difficult to prevent all of its parishioners from using names in their rituals, and in 2010, the LDS congregation agreed to vigilantly attack those who would use the names of Holocaust victims in their practices. Unfortunately, the problem has continued to resurface and tensions have peaked in the last couple of weeks.
In January, the names of the deceased parents of notorious Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were found in the database. Last week, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and renowned Holocaust survivor, was strangely slated for proxy baptism along with his dead father and maternal grandfather. Wiesel condemned the practice and asked Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, to voice his disapproval of what many see as a profoundly distasteful ritual.
“I think it’s scandalous. Not only objectionable, it’s scandalous,” Wiesel reportedly said. “I object fervently. It’s an outrage,” he added, when asked about the possibility the LDS church might now be targeting those alive, as well.
“I wonder if as a candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney is aware of what his church is doing,” the famed survivor continued. “I hope that if he hears about this that he will speak up.”
Romney is a faithful member of the church, and many are aware he spent more than two years as a Mormon missionary in Europe during his formative years. Though his religious affiliation has certainly disenchanted Evangelicals and other conservative voters in the heartland, Romney’s campaign has generally kept his religion a private matter and away from the public eye. For this reason, political commentators have highlighted Wiesel’s finger-pointing as the first of what will surely be a series of criticisms leveled against Romney and his religion. Spokesmen for the candidate did not respond to Wiesel’s comments.
The LDS church offered a formal apology, however, for the latest incident, saying the actions were taken by an individual who has been swiftly and suitably reprimanded.
“We sincerely regret that the actions of an individual member of the church led to the inappropriate submission of these names,” said Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person’s ability to access our genealogy records.”
The Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the apology in a formal statement. Abraham Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor, appreciated the Mormon reaction and explained why taking a strong stance against the church’s mistake held great significance.
“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,” he began. “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 suggested the best answer to the recurrent issue would be for the church to reconsider its position on proxy baptisms. “Perhaps the ultimate solution would be for the church to revisit its theological position on posthumously baptizing Jews and believers outside the Mormon Church, just as other religions have reconsidered centuries-old beliefs,” he added.
This echoed Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist who wrote about the controversial practice in a newsletter a few years ago. “Perhaps it is time for the Church to reevaluate the practice,” Mokotoff wrote.”It is time for another revelation. Nobody has the right to involve other people’s families in their religion.”
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