Ancestry group backs lecture by Mormon baptism-row leader
Britain's leading Jewish genealogical group has defended its decision to invite a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - the Mormons - to speak at its annual one-day conference last week.
On Sunday at West London Synagogue, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (JGSGB) gave a generous round of applause to Sharon Hintze, director of the London Family History Centre, who spoke about Jewish family-history resources.
Ms Hintze is the head of the UK branch of an international Mormon programme which collects details of dead people and posthumously baptises them into the Mormon Church.
Mormons have been at the centre of an ongoing controversy since the early 1990s when it emerged that some of its members had submitted lists of Holocaust victims for posthumous baptism without regard to their origin or relation to the organisation.
Several hundred thousand Holocaust victims had been baptised before the practice came to light.
Despite an agreement from the Mormons in 1995 that the practice would stop, it has continued.
Only last month, according to the American Jewish website Avotaynu, Mormon officials were due to meet representatives of the Holocaust survivor movement in New York on September 18 to explain why posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims has continued unabated despite the agreement.
"At the last minute," the website claimed, "the Church cancelled the meeting." Jewish organisations have complained recently that Mormons have been posthumously baptising not only Holocaust victims but dead Jews in general.
JGSGB chairman Laurence Harris said after last Sunday's London meeting: "My view is, don't let's blow things out of proportion. There have been posthumous baptisms that probably should not have happened.
"The point is the Mormon Church is taking reasonable action to prevent this happening in future and my view is that, as they are taking reasonable action, I am happy to continue to co-operate and work with them.
"We would not have been able to go back as far in our ancestry without the work they are doing and the records they have been given and microfilmed in the past. Without those records we would not have been able to do it, so we have to be grateful."
During her presentation, Ms Hintze revealed that her centre had been given some records from the New, Great, Hambro and Princes Street synagogues. According to Mormon websites and information collected by Jewish genealogists in the United States, these records are used to baptise posthumously millions of dead people into the Mormon faith.
In the past, Jewish figures such as Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin have been baptised by the Mormons.
But Mr Harris insisted: "It comes back to the tenets of their religion. They collected this information for reasons in their church. That does not mean we as a community cannot benefit and they have opened up [the records] to us for our benefit."
He said he did not know of any families in Britain whose Jewish ancestors had been posthumously baptised.
But on the website of the International Genealogical Index, the official record of those who have been baptised into the Mormon church, there are thousands of British names.
They have been collated from community and synagogue records obtained by the Family History Centre.
Gary Motokoff, editor of the American Jewish genealogy website Avotaynu, said in a recent post: "It is time for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to end its doctrine that their mission is the salvation of the entire human race both living and dead. No one has the right to involve other people's families in their religion."
The London Family History Centre holds between 6,000 and 7,000 rolls of film containing records of Jewish interest, with many from Eastern Europe.
A press release by the Latter Day Saints Church describes how Mormon volunteers from around the world use the Family History Centre's databases and custom-made software to "index" names out of the old records.
It states: "Church members participating in Family Search indexing in England are reminded that with every click of the mouse a person comes closer to being found and closer to receiving temple ordinances."
In other words, these names are presented to the Mormon church for baptism.
Ms Hintze stressed that she was a member of the Mormon Church but did not speak for it.
She said: "As far as I know, the Church has never organised posthumous baptisms. Our religious beliefs are that the living should be baptised in water and that we should be baptised for our ancestors who might have wanted it. It is our belief that, if you want to meet God in the next life, you must undergo baptism.
"The instructions of our Church are that whether for Jewish groups, Lutheran or Roman Catholic groups, individuals are not allowed to submit lists of names for posthumous baptism."