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Mormons baptized slain reporter Daniel Pearl

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 29, 2012
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Members of the Mormon Church last year posthumously baptized Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was captured and killed by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to records uncovered by a researcher in Utah.

Helen Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon who combs through the church’s archives, said that records indicate Pearl, who was Jewish, was baptized by proxy on June 1, 2011 at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Mormons baptize deceased Jews and members of other religions as part of a rite intended to give them access to salvation.

But the practice has stirred outrage among some Jewish leaders. In 1995, the church, after meeting with Jewish leaders, agreed to stop baptizing Holocaust victims. Current church policy encourages church members to baptize their ancestors, but does not explicitly forbid the baptism of deceased Jews and people of other faiths.

A former reporter at the Berkshire Eagle, Pearl was 38 when he was abducted while reporting in Karachi, four months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, said it was “disturbing news” to learn that Mormons had baptized their son, in a rite that they understand was meant to offer him salvation.

“To them we say: We appreciate your good intentions but rest assured that Danny’s soul was redeemed through the life that he lived and the values that he upheld,” Judea and Ruth Pearl said in an email. “He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed. For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this un-called-for ritual.”

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate whose name and the names of his late father and grandfather had been entered in a database in preparation for the Mormon rite, drew national attention earlier this month when he called on Mitt Romney to speak out against the ritual baptism of Jews. Romney’s campaign has directed all questions about posthumous baptisms to church officials.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently apologized after Radkey disclosed that the parents of the Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were posthumously baptized by church members at temples in Arizona and Utah in January. Radkey has also produced records showing Mormons in the Dominican Republic baptized Anne Frank on Feb. 18.

Pearl’s widow, Mariane, who was five months pregnant with their son, Adam, when her husband was killed, said it was upsetting to learn that he was baptized.

“It’s a lack of respect for Danny and a lack of respect for his parents,” she said.

She said she agreed with Wiesel that Romney could use his stature within the church to speak out against the baptism of Jews.

“Mitt Romney could do that, just in order to apologize as a member of the church to the families, for whom it’s extremely upsetting,” she said.

Still, she said, “Danny would laugh,” if he knew he had been baptized by Mormons.

“He would laugh because it’s silly,” she said. “It’s a bit surreal.”

“But there is a more serious concern behind it, of respecting people’s identity and integrity,” said Mariane Pearl, who is Buddhist. “It doesn’t traumatize me but, as a matter of ethics, I think it’s wrong.”

Church officials said Daniel Pearl’s baptism was a “serious breach of protocol” because it was not performed by a relative.

“In a few instances, names have been submitted in violation of policy,” Michael Purdy, a church spokesman, said in a statement. “Whether this is done by simple error or for other reasons, the Church considers these submissions to be a serious breach of protocol. It is distressing when an individual willfully violates the Church’s policy and something that should be understood to be an offering based on love and respect becomes a source of contention.”

“The Church will continue to do all it can to prevent such instances, including denying access to these genealogical records or other privileges to those who abuse them in this way,” Purdy said.

Terryl L. Givens, a scholar of Mormonism at the University of Richmond, said the tradition of performing baptisms for the dead springs from an impulse toward generosity and “the universality of salvation,” the notion that “everybody can be saved.” Church theology teaches that the baptized can choose in the afterlife whether to accept salvation and join the church as Mormons.

Any church member in good standing can perform the ritual at one of the church’s 134 temples, Givens said. Church members, acting on behalf of the deceased, immerse themselves in a baptismal font. The rite is often performed by teenagers.

Radkey has previously revealed that Mormons baptized Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, during the 2008 presidential race. Earlier this month, she told the Washington Post she is now researching Romney’s family history, in particular the posthumous plural marriages of his ancestors.

Jewish groups have argued that Mormon officials, renowned for their meticulous genealogical records, should be able to closely monitor the baptisms to ensure church members only baptize relatives. But church officials have said it is difficult to police 14 million members worldwide.

Givens said church officials are also trying to balance their calling to baptize everyone who died with the sensibilities of Jews, who have a history of forced conversions.

“They are trying to find a compromise between a religious duty and the sensibility of another group,” he said.

Richard L. Bushman, a scholar of Mormonism and professor emeritus at Columbia University, said posthumous baptisms may seem “silly or grim,” to non-Mormons, but image problems are nothing new for a church whose theology is often questioned by those outside the faith.

The church, he pointed out, has tried to dispel misperceptions, in part by launching a recent ad campaign, featuring an eclectic mix of Mormons discussing their lives.

In a video that Pearl’s captors forced him to record just before they killed him, Pearl spoke of his religion, saying, “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish.”

In 2004, Pearl’s parents published “I am Jewish,” a collection of essays reflecting on their son’s last words.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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