Two decades of anger, apologies and agreements have failed to keep the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from ending posthumous Mormon baptisms of prominent Jews and holocaust victims.
In the latest incident, the parents of the late Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of a Nazi death camp and an advocate for holocaust victims, were baptized in a Mormon ceremony.
“We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon Temples,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “Further meetings with Church leaders on this matter are useless.”
The Mormon Church responded with an apology and an unprecedented public rebuke of the responsible Church member.
“These submissions were clearly against the policy of the Church,” says spokesman Michael Purdy. “We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person’s ability to access our genealogy records.”
Posthumous baptisms are a critical part of the Mormon faith.
“The savior said that everybody had to be baptized to enter into the kingdom of heaven,” explained Mormon Apostle Quentin Cook during a 2009 tour of a new Mormon Temple in Draper, Utah.
The practice stems from the belief that after the time of Christ, Christianity went astray. The faithful consider the Mormon faith Christianity restored and baptisms not conducted by the restored Church essentially don’t count. So Mormons are out to baptize those who didn’t have these restored baptisms.
“This baptism is not binding on them unless they accept it,” Cook continued. “They’re given the opportunity. So, we consider this a great effort of love.”
The ceremony involves the dunking of a proxy in a sacred baptismal font as the names of deceased people are read aloud.
Church policy limits the baptisms to direct ancestors but zealous followers have extended the rite to dead presidents, scientists, writers, artists and other prominent people listed in a genealogical database with billions of names. But the discovery in 1992 of the names of thousands of victims of the holocaust prompted protests from Jewish groups and a series of meetings between Jewish and Mormon leaders.
The Mormon Church responded by promising to purge its baptism rolls of holocaust victims and urge members to limit baptisms to relatives. But the unwelcome baptisms continued.
“This is an issue that doesn’t go away,” Cooper says. “There needs to be internal reflection on the [Mormon] thinking that takes names like Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal’s parents and says, ‘these souls have to be saved.'”
Genealogical researchers discovered in Mormon baptism records the name of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who chronicled her family’s hiding from the Nazis before being captured and sent to Auschwitz.
The Wiesenthal Center says the father and grandfather of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel were recently listed in a Mormon database that makes them available for baptism. Wiesel survived Auschwitz but his father died there before the concentration camp was liberated.
Mormon Church spokesman Purdy says the Wiesels were not slated for baptism.
“The names were simply entered into a genealogical database,” Purdy says. “Submission for proxy baptism is a separate process.”
Cooper is not satisfied with Purdy’s explanation. “That comment does not reassure me,” he says.
The public rebuke of the Church member responsible for the Wiesenthal baptisms is an encouraging sign to Gary Motokoff, a prominent Jewish genealogist who has participated in discussions with Mormon leaders.
“I hope this reprimand is going to be typical of what happens to people who violate this [Mormon Church] policy,” Motokoff says, hoping the response of the Church will send a strong message to members. “It’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”
Purdy says other Mormons have been contacted when they’ve violated the baptism policy but he doesn’t know if any suffered any sanctions.
“This is a sign that the Church is serious about this issue,” Purdy adds.