America

Mormon Baptism Controversy Now Includes Catholic Witness To Holocaust

He wasn't Jewish and he wasn't a victim of the Holocaust, but the discovery of Jan Karski's name on Mormon proxy baptism records has angered those already upset about posthumous Mormon baptisms of prominent Jews and Holocaust victims.

Jan Karski was a Catholic whose mission for the Polish resistance during World War II included sneaking into the Warsaw ghetto, where he witnessed executions and naked bodies piled in the streets. Then he disguised himself as a Ukrainian guard and infiltrated a concentration camp.

Karski biographer E. Thomas Wood credits the former Polish diplomat with providing the first detailed descriptions of the systematic extermination of Jews to Allied leaders in London.

Wood heard last week's news about the father and grandfather of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, whose names were discovered on genealogical records used to identify candidates for the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism.

The week before, the Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced the appearance of the names of Wiesenthal's parents on Mormon baptism records.

So, Wood asked genealogical researcher Helen Radkey to check the records for Karski's name, and was shocked to find a baptism and other "ordinances" that confirm the Mormon faith of the deceased.

"I know what his faith meant to him, and I know he would be outraged at this effort to appropriate his mortal soul for another religion," Wood wrote in a letter to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "This act will bring pain to his Roman Catholic and Jewish friends and admirers around the world, among others."

Wood called on Mormon leaders to remove Karski's name from church records.

"Attempting to convert him to another religion after death strikes me as precisely the type of intolerant act he stood up to oppose throughout his life," Wood wrote.

In response to a request for comment, Mormon church spokesman Michael Purdy issued a statement restating the church's opposition to and attempts to halt baptisms involving Holocaust victims. But the statement did not address the circumstances involving Karski, a Catholic who was not a victim of the Holocaust.

When pressed, Purdy added, "If there is any improper submission (e.g.—members submitting names from those not related) the principles are the same. In this case, we have suspended this person's access."

Last week, the church announced it had identified the member responsible for the recent Wiesenthal baptisms and suspended indefinitely that person's access to genealogical records.

Church policy limits the baptisms to direct ancestors but Mormon Apostle Quentin Cook told NPR in 2009, "We concentrate first of all on our ancestors and then for the people in the world at large."

Jewish groups have protested Mormon baptisms of prominent Jews and Holocaust victims since 1992, and have reached agreements with Mormon leaders aimed at purging Mormon records of thousands of names and blocking these unwelcome baptisms. But they have continued.

Jews have not been alone in expressing concern. In 2008, the Vatican instructed Catholic bishops throughout the world to decline to turn over parish records to genealogists working for the Mormon church.

A letter to the bishops said this was necessary "to ensure that such a detrimental practice is not permitted in his territory, due to the confidentiality of the faithful and so as not to cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Last week, Mormon baptism became a very brief issue in the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon faith. Wiesel asked Romney to denounce his religion's baptisms of Jews and Holocaust victims. Romney didn't respond, and his campaign referred questions about the practice to the church.

Mormons believe the posthumous baptism rite has no effect unless the deceased soul accepts it.

It's not clear whether the problematic, highly publicized baptisms are the work of overzealous members ignoring the rules or disaffected Mormons out to embarrass the faith and, perhaps, Mitt Romney.

"While no system is foolproof in preventing the handful of individuals who are determined to falsify submissions we are committed to taking action against individual abusers by suspending the submitter's access privileges," Purdy says. "We will also consider whether other Church disciplinary action should be taken."

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