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France turns on Mormons over 'baptism of dead'

The French state is growing increasingly anxious about the "baptism of ancestors" by the Mormon Church.

The French state is growing increasingly anxious about the "baptism of ancestors" by the Mormon Church.

According to an investigation in yesterday's Libération newspaper, Paris is having second thoughts about a 13-year-old agreement allowing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to microfilm all birth and death registers and parish records in France up to the beginning of the 20th century. Under the agreement, made in 1987, the Mormon church agreed that the records would not be resold and would be used only by its members.

According to their doctrine, Mormons must "baptise the dead", or attempt to baptise their ancestors as far back as they can be traced. In return for allowing Mormon researchers to film the records - anyone is entitled to write them down - the French government received two free copies of each microfilm for its own archives.

But the agreement failed to take account of the internet. The information gathered so far, covering 56 of the 100 French metropolitan and overseas départements, and containing the names of 400 million dead French people, is now available on the Mormon website, familysearch.org.

Similar efforts are under way to trace ancestorsin other countries, including Britain (where most parish records can be freely consulted). This drive - officially an effort to "bring together the human family" - has produced a vast archive of three billion names, which are stored in a "genealogical library" contained within cellars hollowed out of a hillside near Salt Lake City.

The information is an invaluable source for genealogists and individuals tracing their roots, whether they are Mormons or not. But the French government fears it is being used, subtly, by the Mormons as a recruitment tool. French civil liberties organisations fear it amounts to a creation of a "secret file" on the human race.

It also raises the odd possibility that many of us are post-facto descended from newly baptised Mormons, without knowing it.

Although not officially admitted, ex-Mormons have spoken of "mass baptisms" of the dead, using names gathered by researchers. In other words, the Mormons are gradually kidnapping all our ancestors.

Christian Euvrard, a spokesman for the Mormons, said it was impossible to know whether "the spirits of the dead" accepted the invitation to become Mormons. He said: "We are not hijacking them. The dead have their own independent referee. Between his death and his resurrection, Christ preached the gospel to the dead.

"Our belief is that men and women can be converted in the spirit world, after their death. For us, there is no one more alive than a dead person."

The posting of the French records on the internet - which implicitly breaks the 1987 agreement - was raised with the Mormon church by the director-general of the French archives, Philippe Belaval, in June. The French Ministry of Culture is to meet civil rights groups next month to hear their complaints.

The French national committee for information and liberty fears that the Mormon file could allow living people to be classified according to their race or religion or enable the health history of their ancestors to be investigated without their knowledge or agreement.

Mr Belaval acknowledged to Libération that there was a potential problem. "The existence of this website has led us to question the way the state and the [Mormons] agreed to use this information. Why is the church putting this information on the web? For what purpose and in what context?

"The 1987 agreement failed to foresee the coming of new technologies. We cannot remain with the status quo."