As if there aren’t enough reasons for the living to argue, fuss and fight with each other about religion, now the dead are getting involved.
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say they are abiding by a 1995 agreement to limit the baptism of Jews who were killed in Nazi concentration camps. “If our work for the dead is properly understood … it should not be a source of friction to anyone. It’s merely a freewill offering,” LDS leader Lance B. Wickman told the AP.
But some Holocaust survivors held a press conference Monday to say that the Mormon practice continues and they want it to stop. “My mother and father were killed in the Holocaust for no other reason than they were Jews,” Ernest “Ernie” Michel told the Salt Lake Tribune. “How can the Mormons victimize them a second time and falsely claim their souls for eternity?”
Monday’s press conference is the latest accusation in a stranger-than-fiction dispute that dates back to the mid-1990s, when a few Jewish geneologists found the names of thousands of Holocaust victims in the official LDS index of posthumous baptisms.
“Baptism for the dead” is a central tenet of the Mormon faith. Mormons believe that when they die they will be reunited with family members who were faithful Mormons. Thus, church members have a solemn obligation to identify the deceased — especially those who weren’t Mormons — and baptize them by proxy to give them the option of accepting Christ and becoming Mormon in the afterlife.
As a person of faith who also happens to be a journalist, I tend to find the religious beliefs and practices of others intriguing and even enlightening rather than threatening or offensive. But the LDS practice of baptizing the dead, especially long-dead strangers, seems more than presumptuous to me.
To their credit, LDS leaders realize that the practice can be offensive to non-Mormons. In 1995, they reached an agreement with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. Among other things, LDS agreed to “discontinue any future baptisms of deceased Jews, including all lists of Jewish Holocaust victims who are known Jews, except if they were direct ancestors of living members of the Church or the Church had the written approval of all living members of the deceased’s immediate family.”
Wickman said Monday that the church also has removed the names of more than 300,000 dead Jews. They also are changing the LDS genealogical database to make it more difficult to enter names of Holocaust victims. But Michel said his group’s research shows that the names of Holocaust victims continue to be added to the LDS rolls, without permission, as recently as July. “Baptism of a Jewish Holocaust victim and then merely removing that name from the database is just not acceptable,” said Michel, who believe the practice of baptizing dead Jews should stop entirely.
The Catholic Church also is growing more uncomfortable with the practice. Over the years, even dead popes and saints have been found on LDS lists of the posthumously baptized. In May, the Vatican ordered Catholic dioceses throughout the world to withhold information in parish registers the Mormons’ Genealogical Society of Utah.
LDS officials say the practice is not meant to offend the living but to respect and honor the dead, who are free to decline the offer of eternal salvation. They also argue that LDS beliefs are their own and should also be respected. “We don’t think any faith group has the right to ask another to change its doctrines,” Wickman said.
They do have a right to ask, although everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs. But this isn’t just about beliefs. It’s also about a religious practice that not only offends others but directly and personally involves the deceased relatives of others who have a right to rest in peace.