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Another Controversial Mormon Baptism: Slain Journalist Daniel Pearl

Daniel Pearl.
Getty Images
Daniel Pearl.

The Boston Globe reports this morning that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was baptized posthumously in a Mormon temple in Idaho last year.

Pearl was Jewish and was captured and killed by terrorists while reporting in Pakistan in 2002.

NPR has independently confirmed the Mormon "proxy" baptism for Pearl on June 1, 2011, at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho. Documents from church genealogical records describing the baptism and other sacred Mormon "ordinances" for Pearl were provided by Helen Radkey, a researcher who has found many embarrassing baptisms in church records.

NPR is seeking comment from Mormon officials, who have yet to respond.

In the last official statement on the subject, church spokesman Michael Purdy said:

"The Church keeps its word and is absolutely firm in its commitment to not accept the names of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism.

"It takes a good deal of deception and manipulation to get an improper submission through the safeguards we have put in place.

"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. We will also consider whether other Church disciplinary action should be taken.

"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."

Pearl is the latest prominent member of the Jewish faith to be found in Mormon baptism records. Technically, Pearl's baptism does not violate Mormon baptism rules because he was not a Holocaust victim. But followers have also been told to restrict posthumous baptisms to direct ancestors.

Earlier this month, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on Mitt Romney, a faithful Mormon, to condemn posthumous Mormon baptisms of prominent Jews and Holocaust victims. Romney's campaign has referred questions about the practice to the Mormon church.

Jewish leaders have tried to get Mormon leaders to stop baptisms of Holocaust victims since 1992; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has promised better policing of its baptism system and recently punished at least two followers for violating a rule that limits baptisms to direct relatives.

Pearl's parents told the Globe they found the news of the ceremony "disturbing":

"To them we say: We appreciate your good intentions but rest assured that Danny's soul was redeemed through the life that he lived and the values that he upheld," Judea and Ruth Pearl said in an e-mail. "He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew, and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed. For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this un-called-for ritual."

Pearl's widow, Marianne, told the Globe, "It's a lack of respect for Danny and a lack of respect for his parents."

Radkey says the stream of embarrassing baptisms "is reaching really ludicrous proportions. [Mormon] officials promised time and time again that they would stop and they haven't done it."

Mormon leaders have promised to purge Mormon baptism rolls of Holocaust victims and to place filters in its genealogical database so that the names of deceased souls from the Holocaust era and locations are flagged for review.

But church leaders have also sent mixed messages about the practice and the policy. 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."

"Proxy" and "posthumous" baptism is a central tenet of the Mormon faith. Mormons believe it offers to deceased souls the opportunity to embrace the faith and receive eternal salvation. The belief also includes the notion that the baptism has no effect if the deceased soul rejects it.

A recent spate of highly publicized and criticized baptisms has some speculating that these revelations are deliberate efforts to embarrass the Mormon church and the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

The church has declined to identify or characterize those found responsible. Radkey insists the people doing these baptisms are overzealous Mormons and "absolutely not mischief makers."

Radkey's research has identified those who have submitted the names of Pearl and other prominent Jews and Holocaust victims, but she refuses to disclose those names, citing the privacy of the people involved.

But she says the "huge number" of multiple and different members in multiple locations submitting controversial names and then conducting posthumous ceremonies is a strong indication to her that overzealous members ignoring or unaware of church directives are responsible.

In fact, posthumous Mormon rites involving Pearl occurred in temples in two different locations in Idaho and another in Utah.

"I'm not anti-Mormon," Radkey says of her role in spotting and publicizing the names that lead to embarrassment for the faith. "Research is research."

Update at 3:25 p.m. ET. Comment From The Church:

Michael Purdy, the spokesman for the Mormon Church, says that it does not have a specific statement about Daniel Pearl's posthumous baptism.

Purdy referred to the earlier statement we quoted above, but also added that:

"The church has a position on what members should be submitting. That position is communicated to them and we have some safeguards in place to catch improper submissions. Nothing is foolproof and we work to handle improper submissions when they do occur."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.