Mormons around the world are getting this warning Sunday: Stop posthumous baptisms of "unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims."
"Our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors," says a letter to be read in every Mormon congregation. "Those whose names are submitted for proxy [baptisms] should be related to the submitter."
Mormons who continue to embarrass the faith by submitting the names of celebrities and Holocaust victims for the proxy baptism rite will lose access to the Mormon genealogical records, the letter warns. "Other corrective action may also be taken," it says.
The letter is signed by church President Thomas Monson and his two "counselors" in the Mormon First Presidency, the top leadership of the faith.
The warning follows an avalanche of criticism about the Mormon practice of baptizing deceased souls into the faith. In recent weeks, an excommunicated Mormon who continues to do genealogical research in church baptism records has found the names of prominent Jews and Holocaust victims, including Anne Frank and Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter captured and killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
"We welcome this as an important step," says Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor.
"Church members should understand why proxy baptisms are so offensive to the Jewish people," Foxman adds, citing "near annihilation during the Holocaust simply because they were Jewish" and "forced conversions throughout history."
Jewish leaders first raised concerns about the practice and the inclusion of Holocaust victims in 1992. Several meetings with Mormon leaders in the two decades since have resulted in promises to remove the names of Holocaust victims from Mormon baptism rolls and to screen baptism lists for those who died in concentration camps.
But some Mormons continued to place the names on baptism lists and conduct proxy baptisms in which the name of the deceased is read aloud while a living proxy is immersed in water.
The controversial practice has even touched the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, a faithful Mormon. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel called on Romney to denounce inappropriate baptisms after discovering Wiesel family members had been posthumously baptized.
Romney's campaign referred questions about Wiesel's statement to the Mormon Church.
Mormons believe the ceremony has no effect if the deceased soul rejects it.
Mormon policy, as the letter restates, is to confine the baptisms to ancestors, but as recently as 2009, one of the highest-ranking leaders of the church indicated otherwise.
Quentin Cook is one of the faith's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the group at the top of church leadership. During a tour of a new Mormon Temple in Draper, Utah, Cook described the posthumous baptism practice and belief.
"We concentrate first of all on our ancestors and then for the people in the world at large," Cook told NPR.
In recent weeks, Mormon officials said they had punished at least two followers who had violated Church policy by baptizing prominent Jews who were not among their ancestors. The members involved lost access to the baptism system and a church spokesman said more serious sanctions are possible.
Proxy baptism is a fundamental tenet of the Mormon faith and followers are encouraged to participate. Millions of Mormons have gathered and placed billions of names into church genealogical records. Volunteers travel to Mormon Temples to conduct the baptism ceremony.
Mormons believe the rite offers deceased souls the opportunity for eternal salvation, but Foxman says the Mormon Church should "reconsider all the implications of continuing the practice of posthumous baptism, as it has re-evaluated other of its traditions."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Leaders of the Mormon Church are clarifying the rules around a central church ritual - baptizing the dead. Mormons around the world are getting word in church today that they risk disciplinary action if they violate the policy. Proxy baptism, as it's called, has long been controversial because Mormons have been known to baptize people outside the faith, including prominent Jews and victims of the Holocaust. The controversy, rather, has even touched the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, himself a Mormon. Today, Mormon bishops have been told to read a letter in church that says these baptisms can only be carried out for Mormon ancestors. NPR's Howard Berkes joins us now to talk more about this. Howard, Jewish leaders have been complaining about these baptisms, particularly of Holocaust victims and prominent Jews, for more than 20 years. Why are Mormon leaders warning followers about this now?
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Well, I think there are at least three reasons. First, these 20 years of complaints by Jewish leaders have been met by 20 years of promises and attempted fixes by Mormon leaders, and they haven't actually worked. Second, the fact that they haven't worked has been underscored in the last few weeks, with the names of the parents of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor himself, found on Mormon baptism records; then the names of the father and grandfather of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; then Holocaust victim Anne Frank; then Daniel Pearl, the Jewish Wall Street Journal reported who was killed by terrorists in 2002. And third, as you mentioned, Mitt Romney, the first Mormon who has a very real chance to become president, he was drawn into the fray when Elie Wiesel called on him to condemn these unwanted baptisms. Romney did not respond.
MARTIN: Now, Mormon leaders are saying that the policy is to restrict these baptisms to direct ancestors. This has been the official policy. Howard, has it just not been enforced?
BERKES: Well, you know, I'm not sure that the policy was clear or clearly stated or stated certainly with the threat of consequences until now. One of the top officials of the church told me just three years ago that Mormons concentrate, first of all, on their ancestors and then the people in the world at large. Well, that doesn't sound like a practice with limits. I mean, it's only been in the last few weeks that the church has even publicly announced punishment of Mormons who have been found to be responsible. Two members lost access to the Mormon genealogical system that's used for these baptisms. That's the penalty Mormons are going to hear about today along with other possible but unspecified corrective action.
MARTIN: And is there a political element in any of this? Have you see an evidence out there that these revelations about these kinds of baptisms could be an effort to discredit Romney or the Mormon faith?
BERKES: Well, the church has suggested that there is deliberate mischief out there. But there's been no proof of that. And, you know, this long predates Mitt Romney's campaigns for president. Overzealous Mormons - the church has called them that - with what, to them, are very good intentions have been doing this sort of thing for a very long time.
MARTIN: Finally, Howard, how unusual is it for the top leaders of the Mormon Church to deliver this kind of global edict like this in a letter read in every church service in every congregation around the world?
BERKES: You know, Mormon leaders only reach out to members in this way when there's something that's so important to the faith that they want to be sure that every member is going to hear about it. There have been times in the past when key issues come up that the church feels need to be addressed globally in the organization; messages that have to be unmistakable, absolutely clear. They're delivered from the pulpit and those messages are put in writing and signed by church leaders. And it's very clear: the message is do not violate this policy. Your president and prophet says so. This is a very strong signal that they want this persistent controversy to end.
MARTIN: NPR's Howard Berkes. Thanks so much, Howard.
BERKES: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.