Nobel-laureate Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and a top official from the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Tuesday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney should use his stature in the Mormon church to block its members from posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims.
Their comments followed reports that Mormons had baptized the deceased parents of Wiesenthal, the late Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter.
A spokeswoman for Romney said his campaign would not comment, directing all inquiries to church officials.
Posthumous baptisms of non-Mormons are a regular practice of the Mormon religion. Church members believe the ritual creates the possibility for the deceased to enter their conception of Heaven.
Individual members can submit names, usually of deceased relatives, for proxy baptisms. The church has tried to improve its technology to block the process from including Jewish Holocaust victims. In this case, officials blamed an unidentified individual.
“We sincerely regret that the actions of an individual member of the church led to the inappropriate submission of these names,” spokesman Michael Purdy said in a statement. “These submissions were clearly against the policy of the church. We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person’s ability to access our genealogy records.”
The practice of baptizing Holocaust victims has long been offensive to Jews. After years of negotiations, Mormon officials have prohibited posthumous baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims.
There is no indication that Romney has ever been involved in the proxy baptism of a Holocaust victim. Asked if he had ever participated in posthumous baptisms, Romney told Newsweek in 2007 that, “I have in my life, but I haven’t recently.”
The controversy could put Romney in the uncomfortable position of having to directly address Mormon theology, a topic he has so far avoided in his current campaign. Many evangelical voters have expressed skepticism about Mormonism, and Romney, a former lay leader in the church, has rarely discussed his experiences in the church.
Romney “is now the most famous and important Mormon in the country,” Wiesel said. “I’m not saying it’s his fault, but once he knows, morally he must respond. . . . He should come out and say, ‘Stop it.’ “
Wiesel, 83, is one of several Jewish leaders who has directly negotiated the issue with the Mormon church since the mid-1990s.
Not all activists on the issue agree with drawing Romney into the fray. Gary Greenebaum, a Los Angeles rabbi who has served as the lead mediator between Jewish organizations and church officials, said he greatly admired Wiesel but felt it was “important to not make someone who happens to be an adherent of one religion responsible for everything that religion does.”
As a young man, Romney served as a missionary in France. After marrying in the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City and attending Brigham Young University, Romney stayed active in the church while pursuing graduate degrees at Harvard, occasionally taking buses with other Mormons to the closest temple, in Washington, to perform temple ordinances.
As he climbed the corporate ladder, the church called on him to serve in increasingly prominent lay clergy positions, ultimately becoming the authority responsible for much of the Boston area.
Romney played a pivotal role in building the Mormon temple in Belmont, Mass., a hub for area Mormons who can now perform the proxy baptisms, marriage sealings and other covenants that are a part of their faith.
Purdy said members believe “they may be baptized by proxy for deceased ancestors who never had that opportunity.”
Church policy, Purdy added, is that members can request baptisms “only for their own ancestors” and that proxy baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims “are strictly prohibited.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Weisenthal Center, said that while Romney was not responsible for the decisions of the Mormon Church, he could play a crucial role in settling the matter.
“It would send a strong signal, not just to every Jewish voter, but to every American, that when he feels it’s appropriate, he can have different views and have an impact on decision-making,” Cooper said.
Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.