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Jewish group wants proxy baptisms to end

By Deepti Hajela and Jennifer Dobner
Associated Press / November 11, 2008
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NEW YORK - Holocaust survivors said yesterday 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 to 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 yesterday, 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 two days of 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, are over. 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, the church agreed not to perform baptisms or other rites for Holocaust victims, except in the very rare instances when they have living descendants who are Mormon.

Church spokesman Mike Otterson said Michel's decision to denounce the church publicly seems like a unilateral termination of the discussion.

"Those steps by Mr. Michel on behalf of the American Gathering were both unnecessary and unfortunate and belie the long and valued mutual respect that we have had in past years," Otterson said in an e-mail.

Posthumous 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.

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