If there’s ever been an inter-religious dispute that’s flown under the radar, the simmering, decades-long controversy between the Church of Latter Day Saints and Jewish groups over posthumous Mormon baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims may well be a prime example.
But an agreement struck last week by the Church and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents stands to discontinue its practice of “baptisms for the dead” — a religious mandate that permits living Mormons to initiate deceased family members into the Church — which has been in practice since the mid-1800s.
Jewish groups have claimed the proxy baptisms are insensitive, especially to those who suffered during the Holocaust. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Anne Frank are among those who have been baptized posthumously. Mormons, for their part, have never admitted nefarious intentions.
“As a result of dialogue and extraordinary efforts of the Church, computer systems and policy initiatives have been put in place that resolve this issue,” the two groups said in a joint statement.
Mormons hold that families can be reunited in death, a belief that has spurred the Church to invest countless dollars in genealogical archiving and research. In 1994, Jewish genealogists discovered that names of Holocaust victims were being placed in the Church-run International Genealogical Index, a sprawling list of records originally created to help manage proxy baptisms.
A Jewish delegation met with Mormon leaders the following year and the Church pledged to keep Holocaust victims out of the database. The names, however, kept popping up and subsequent meetings were held in 2005 and 2008.
Both sides of the mediation are confident the latest round of meetings will be the last. A Mormon can now only enter the name of a Holocaust victim into the IGI if he is a direct descendant and “those descended from a Holocaust victim have to go through a special process to do proxy baptisms for a Jewish relative,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
“This was a much heralded resolution and everyone in the delegation is extremely happy,” said former New York attorney general Robert Abrams, who was involved in the discussions. “This is a very generous and significant effort by the LDS Church to display enormous sensitivity to the Jewish community for victims of the Holocaust and I think members of the Jewish community recognize what the Church has done.”
Others, however, are skeptical the resolution will be successful. Gary Mokotoff, one of the first genealogists to point a finger at the Mormons, said no computer system can curb the inclusion of Holocaust victims.
“The only way this is going to be stopped is by the Church reprimanding individuals doing it — first with a warning, then something stronger — maybe excommunication,” he told the Tribune. “It’s the 55-mph rule of the Mormon Church. It’s on the books, but no one enforces it.”