NEW YORK – Holocaust survivors said Monday they are through trying to negotiate with the Mormon church over posthumous baptisms of Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps, saying the church has repeatedly violated a 13-year-old agreement barring the practice.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say they are making changes to their massive genealogical database that will make it more difficult for names of Holocaust victims to be entered for posthumous baptism by proxy, a rite that has been a common Mormon practice for more than a century.
But Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said that is not enough. At a news conference in New York City on Monday, he said the church also must "implement a mechanism to undo what you have done."
"Baptism of a Jewish Holocaust victim and then merely removing that name from the database is just not acceptable," said Michel, whose parents died at Auschwitz. He spoke on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-incited riots against Jews.
"We ask you to respect us and our Judaism just as we respect your religion," Michel said in a statement released ahead of the news conference. "We ask you to leave our six million Jews, all victims of the Holocaust, alone, they suffered enough."
Michel said talks with Mormon leaders, held as recently as last week, have ended. He said his group will not sue, and that "the only thing left, therefore, is to turn to the court of public opinion."
In 1995, Mormons and Jews inked an agreement to limit the circumstances that allow for the proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims. Ending the practice outright was not part of the agreement and would essentially be asking Mormons to alter their beliefs, church Elder Lance B. Wickman said Monday in an interview with reporters in Salt Lake City.
"We don't think any faith group has the right to ask another to change its doctrines," Wickman said. "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."
Michel's decision to unilaterally end discussion of the issue through a news conference leaves the church uncertain about how to proceed, Wickman said.
Baptism by proxy allows faithful Mormons to have their ancestors baptized into the 178-year-old church, which they believe reunites families in the afterlife.
Using genealogy records, the church also baptizes people who have died from all over the world and from different religions. Mormons stand in as proxies for the person being baptized and immerse themselves in a baptismal pool.
Only the Jews have an agreement with the church limiting who can be baptized, though the agreement covers only Holocaust victims, not all Jewish people. Jews are particularly offended by baptisms of Holocaust victims because they were murdered specifically because of their religion.
Michel suggested that posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims play into the hands of Holocaust deniers.
"They tell me, that my parents' Jewishness has not been altered but ... 100 years from now, how will they be able to guarantee that my mother and father of blessed memory who lived as Jews and were slaughtered by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, will someday not be identified as Mormon victims of the Holocaust?" Michel said Monday.
Wickman said the practice in no way impinges upon a person's "Jewishness, or their ethnicity, or their background."
Under the agreement with the Holocaust group, Mormons could enter the names of only those Holocaust victims to whom they were directly related. The church also agreed to remove the names of Holocaust victims already entered into its massive genealogical database.
Church spokesman Otterson said the church kept its part of the agreement by removing more than 260,000 names from the genealogical index.
But since 2005, ongoing monitoring of the database by an independent Salt Lake City-based researcher shows both resubmissions and new entries of names of Dutch, Greek, Polish and Italian Jews.
The researcher, Helen Radkey, who has done contract work for the Holocaust group, said her research suggests that lists of Holocaust victims obtained from camp and government records are being dumped into the database. She said she has seen and recorded a sampling of several thousand entries that indicate baptisms had been conducted for Holocaust victims as recently as July.
Wickman said lists of names have been entered into the database by a small number of well-meaning members who were acting "outside of policy." He said that church monitors have identified and removed 42,000 names from the database on their own, and that the church welcomes research from others.
Church officials say a new version of the database — called New Family Search — is being tested overseas and should reduce the problems. In the works for six years, the new database will discourage the submission of large lists of unrelated individuals. It will also separate names intended for temple rites from those submitted purely for genealogical purposes, the church states in a letter sent to Michel on Nov. 6.
"The names of any Holocaust victims we can identify in the database are to be flagged with a special designation — not available for temple ordinances," the letter states.
The church also proposes jump-starting a monitoring committee formed in 2005 to review database entries. The committee has met just once since 2005.
In May, the Vatican ordered Catholic dioceses worldwide to withhold member registries from Mormons so that Catholics could not be baptized.