The church rejects allegations that it is buying the names of dead souls, saying the effort in Russia is aimed only at providing an archive of genealogical data for the good of all humankind.
Others say the church is continuing its oft-criticized ritual of posthumously baptizing the dead as Mormons, a practice called "proxy baptism" that critics say is rife with ethical and moral problems.
"Obviously we can't approve the practice. It takes away the most essential gift God has given people, their freedom," said the spokesman for the patriarchal parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States.
"It turns religion into magic," said Father Joseph, who does not use his last name and is secretary to the administrator of the parish, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long collected names from government documents and other records worldwide. The names are then used in temple rituals, during which Mormon stand-ins are dunked in water to offer the dead salvation and entry to the Mormon religion.
It's primarily intended to offer salvation to the ancestors of Mormons, but many others are included.
The practice "does not force a change of religion on any deceased person," said Dale Bills, a spokesman for the Utah-based church, which has more than 11 million members worldwide. "Proxy baptism is a caring expression of faith that provides deceased persons the opportunity to accept or reject what we believe to be a blessing offered in their behalf."
Looking beyond the grave
Salt Lake City independent researcher Helen Radkey said she has found such notable non-Mormons as Adolf Hitler, Anne Frank and Roman Catholic popes and saints within the church's database — called the International Genealogical Index — of 600 million names.
"From our perspective, the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of Mormon baptisms," said the Rev. Ronald Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. "Rebaptism is, by definition, an impossibility," he said. "Either you're baptized or you're not."
But Mormon faithful believe that individual ability to choose continues beyond the grave.
"Nothing is forced on anyone," Bills said. "Since no offense is intended, we hope none will be taken."
Even though Catholics believe the rebaptisms change nothing in the afterlife for the deceased, Roberson said he could see how finding out that a service has been done on one's behalf might affect their survivors. "It constitutes a denial of the baptism that already took place," he said. "People could certainly have reason to be upset."
Still rebaptizing Jews?
In 1995, the Mormon church agreed with Jewish leaders to end its practice of posthumously baptizing Jews. However, after several Jewish organizations complained that the practice hadn't stopped and Radkey produced the names of at least 20,000 Jews in the index, the church in December 2002 rededicated itself to ending the practice and removing the names.
Radkey, however, said many names have not been removed, despite what she called a "cosmetic" cleanup two months ago involving the names of Jews who died in concentration camps. In fact, within the past few months, she has found the names of prominent Jews still in the database, albeit under their original names or with alternate spellings.
They include David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and Theodor Herzl, Hungarian journalist and the founder of Zionism.
Radkey said the inclusion of Ben-Gurion, listed by his birth name of David Green and baptized since 2000, indicates the Mormons are not sincere about abiding by the agreement with Jewish leaders.
"If he would be done since the 1995 agreement, then they'll do any Jew," she said.
Bills said the church is abiding by the agreement and will remove Jewish names when they are presented to church officials. There's no agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church, however.
Russian project suspended
The Mormon church arranged through the cash-strapped Russian Society of Historians and Archivists in Moscow to reimburse the labor costs for transferring 18th-century church membership lists to microfilm.
The church says it is a service to humanity. Historical genealogical data are preserved on microfilm and are safe from natural disasters since one copy is kept with the sponsoring organization and the other in Salt Lake City.
After objections were raised in November by one Russian Orthodox Church parish east of Moscow, the practice was suspended for further review.
The concern extends to the church's U.S. office, which says the Mormons have no right to rebaptize people into a different faith after their deaths. "The decision that the person makes is made here on earth, that's final," said Father Joseph, the church's New York-based spokesman.