Russian Orthodox Church claims Mormons buying names for disputed proxy baptisms

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY The Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing non-Mormons, which has angered Jews and others in the past, is now creating tensions with another religion the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is funding the preservation at 10 cents a sheet of thousands of names of dead Russian Orthodox Church members.

The church flatly rejects allegations that it is buying the names of dead souls, and insists the effort in Russia is aimed only at providing an archive of genealogical data for the public good. However, critics contend the church is using the names for its oft-criticized ritual called proxy baptism, a practice they say is rife with ethical and moral problems.

''It takes away the most essential gift God has given people, their freedom,'' said Father Joseph, a spokesperson for the patriarchal parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States, who does not use his last name. ''It turns religion into magic.''

The LDS church has long collected names from government documents and other records worldwide, then made them available for use in temple rituals, during which Mormon stand-ins are immersed in water to offer the dead salvation and entry to the Mormon religion.

The practice is primarily intended to offer salvation to ancestors of Mormons, but many others are included, since Mormons believe that individuals' ability to choose a religion continues beyond the grave.

It ''does not force a change of religion on any deceased person,'' said Dale Bills, a spokesperson for the Utah-based church, which has more than 11 million members worldwide. ''Proxy baptism is a caring expression of faith that provides deceased persons the opportunity to accept or reject what we believe to be a blessing offered in their behalf.''

Helen Radkey, an independent researcher in Salt Lake City, said she has found such notable non-Mormons as Adolph Hitler, Anne Frank, and even Roman Catholic saints and popes among the 600 million names in the church's database, called the International Genealogical Index.

The Catholic Church is among the groups that do not even recognize Mormon baptisms for the living. And, ''re-baptism is, by definition, an impossibility'' in the Catholic view, said the Rev. Ronald Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''Either you're baptized or you're not.''

He said the Mormon practice, ''constitutes a denial of the baptism that already took place.

''People could certainly have reason to be upset,'' Roberson said.

In 1995, the Mormon church acceded to demands by Jewish leaders that the denomination end its practice of posthumously baptizing Jews.

However, several Jewish organizations complained a few years later that the practice hadn't stopped, and Radkey produced the names of at least 20,000 Jews in the index. The church responded last December by rededicating itself to ending the practice and removing the names.

Radkey, however, said many names still have not been removed, despite what she called a ''cosmetic'' cleanup two months ago of Jews who died in concentration camps. Within the last few months, she has found the names of prominent Jews still in the database, albeit under their original names or those with alternate spellings.

They include David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister (which was later removed), and Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

Radkey said the inclusion of Ben-Gurion, listed by his birth name of David Green and baptized since 2000, indicates the Mormons are not sincere about abiding by the agreement with Jewish leaders.

''If he would be done since the 1995 agreement, then they'll do any Jew,'' she said.

Bills said the church is actively abiding by the agreement, and will remove Jewish names when they are presented to church officials.

There's no agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church, however.

The Mormon church arranged through the Russian Society of Historians and Archivists in Moscow to microfilm church membership lists from the 18th century, paying 10 cents a sheet for thousands of names.

The church says it is a service to humanity. Historical, genealogical data is preserved on microfilm, and is safe from natural disasters since one copy is kept with the sponsoring organization and the other on church property in Utah.

After objections were raised last month by one Russian Orthodox Church parish east of Moscow, the preservation work has been suspended for further review, The Moscow Observer reported.

''Nothing is forced on anyone,'' Bills said. ''Since no offense is intended, we hope none will be taken.''

The concern extends to the U.S. office of the Russian Orthodox Church, which says the Mormons have no right to rebaptize people after their deaths.

Said Father Joseph, the church's New York-based spokesman: ''The decision that the person makes is made here on Earth, that's final.''

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