Mormon church, Jewish leaders tackle proxy baptism

Sep 1 2010 - 1:44pm

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Mormon church says it has changed its genealogical database to better prevent the names of Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps from being submitted for posthumous baptism by proxy.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors 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.

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 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 Jewish leaders 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.

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