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Elie Wiesel Shines Spotlight On Romney Over Controversial Mormon Practice

Mitt Romney

Elie Wiesel Shines Spotlight On Romney Over Controversial Mormon Practice

Listen to Howard Berkes on 'All Things Considered'

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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

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Charles Dharapak/AP

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel

Charles Dharapak/AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is under pressure to condemn posthumous Mormon baptisms of Jews and Holocaust victims.

Romney "should speak to his own church and say they should stop," said Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in a story in the Huffington Post.

"I wonder if as a candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney is aware of what his church is doing," Wiesel continued. "I hope that if he hears about this that he will speak up."

Wiesel was reacting to news this week that his name, and the names of his father and grandfather, were found on a genealogical database kept by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and used to select deceased souls for a Mormon practice known as proxy baptism.

"Proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims are strictly prohibited," says Mormon church spokesman Michael Purdy, who also acknowledges that the Wiesel names appeared in the database.

But, Purdy adds: "The Wiesel names were not submitted for baptisms. ... Our system would have rejected those names had they been submitted."

Neither Romney nor his campaign responded to Wiesel's request. The campaign refers questions about the incident to the Mormon church.

Jewish groups have been complaining about Mormon proxy baptisms for 20 years and they and Mormon leaders have met multiple times and signed multiple agreements. But the problem persists.

Mitt Romney speaks at a rally Monday in Mesa, Ariz. Eric Thayer/Getty Images hide caption

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Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Mitt Romney speaks at a rally Monday in Mesa, Ariz.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

The issue also illustrates the challenge ahead for Romney as controversial Mormon beliefs come under increasing scrutiny during the presidential campaign.

The latest clash between Jewish groups and the Mormon church began last week when the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said it was "outraged" after learning that the names of Wiesenthal's parents appeared in a Mormon baptismal record.

"This is an issue that doesn't go away," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate director of the center. "There needs to be internal reflection on the [Mormon] thinking that takes names like Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal's parents and says, 'These souls have to be saved.' "

The Mormon church issued an apology and the first ever public rebuke of a responsible follower.

"These submissions were clearly against the policy of the church," said spokesman Purdy. "We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."

Proxy baptisms are anchored in a Mormon belief that Christianity strayed after the time of Christ. Mormons consider their faith the restoration of true Christianity and don't consider valid any baptisms conducted outside their faith.

"The savior said that everybody had to be baptized to enter the kingdom of heaven," explained Quentin Cook, one of 12 "Apostles" considered the top leaders of the faith, during a 2009 tour of a new Mormon temple in Draper, Utah. "And so by proxy there is baptism for all of those who are deceased."

A Mormon baptismal font, this one in the church's Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple. © 2011 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. hide caption

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© 2011 Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The baptisms occur in baptismal fonts constructed in Mormon temples, the group's most sacred buildings. Millions of Mormons conduct genealogical research to identify ancestors who were not Mormon or lived before the time church founder Joseph Smith is believed to have restored Christianity. Billions of names have gone into databases, and individual Mormons in temples around the globe gather daily to conduct posthumous baptisms.

In the baptism ceremony, one volunteer reads aloud the name of a deceased soul while another, a proxy for the deceased, is immersed in a hot-tub-size pool of water. A third volunteer utters the words, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

"We consider this a great effort of love," Cook said. "This baptism is not binding on them unless they accept it."

That belief is cited by Mormons when others complain about the practice. Many Mormons wonder why some are so angered by a practice that has no effect if the deceased soul rejects it.

The anger is often at fever pitch when Holocaust victims are targeted for baptism. Relatives of those who died because of their faith find it deeply offensive that Mormons would baptize them into another faith.

"My parents, who were killed at Auschwitz, would never agree to be baptized by the Mormon church," insisted Ernest Michel, chairman of the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and a participant in negotiations with Mormon leaders.

"The policy of the church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors," says Purdy. But the faith hasn't always been so clear about which baptisms are permitted and which are not.

In his 2009 interview, Cook said: "We concentrate first of all on our ancestors and then for the people in the world at large."

In fact, Mormon baptism records have included the names of deceased presidents, writers, artists and scientists who were not Mormon during their lives.

The punishment of the church member responsible for the Wiesenthal incident encourages Gary Motokoff, a prominent Jewish genealogist who has also been involved in negotiations with Mormon leaders.

"I hope this reprimand is going to be typical of what happens to people who violate this [Mormon church] policy," Motokoff says, hoping the response of the church will send a strong message to members. "It's the missing piece of the puzzle."

Purdy says Mormon leaders are determined to police posthumous baptisms and that a new computer system makes identification of violators possible.

"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," Purdy says. "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."

It's not clear, though, who is really responsible for these abuses — overzealous Mormons, disaffected church members out to embarrass the faith, or both. There's broad access to the system and Mormon officials won't describe or identify violators or their possible motivations.

Howard Berkes discussed the issue on NPR's All Things Considered. We've embedded the audio at the top of the page.