Religious leaders in Maryland, along with many thousands of others around the world, are taking sides as the debate heats up over preparations for next month's United Nations population conference in Cairo, Egypt.
Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler is the chief spokesman in the United States for the official Roman Catholic concern that the conference -- with the backing of the Clinton administration and many non-Catholic church groups -- will endorse abortion as a basic human right.
As president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Keeler has led the attack on parts of a draft plan for the Cairo session, which he said urges that contraceptives and abortion "be provided to unmarried minors without parental knowledge or support, and envisions the widest possible distribution of condoms."
While supporters of the draft plan include U.S. Protestant and Jewish religious leaders, they also include Catholics critical of the Vatican's efforts to forge a coalition with Islamic countries that could block acceptance of abortion, contraception and homosexuality at the international meeting.
The U.N. document on the need for stabilizing the world's population, to be considered in Cairo by representatives of 183 countries beginning Sept. 5, is intended to be a blueprint for global policies for the next 20 years.
Catholics Speak Out, an organization based in Hyattsville, says it has collected thousands of signatures on "an open letter to Pope John Paul II" which begins, "As faithful Catholics who share with you a responsibility for the life of our church, we speak to you directly because we are deeply distressed by the Vatican's continuing opposition to contraception."
The statement concludes with a call to world leaders and officials of the United Nations "to embrace as a worldwide goal the provision of voluntary contraceptive family planning services to every woman and man who wants them by the end of this decade."
Sister Maureen Fiedler, one of the coordinators of Catholics Speak Out, said the statement being circulated in English, Spanish, French, Dutch and German "is a response to grass-roots women throughout the world who are crying out for effective means to control their fertility."
The Rev. William Callahan, a Maryland Catholic priest who is helping to collect signatures on the letter to the pope, said, "We are pooling our resources at this critical hour in global decision-making to make public what the Vatican wants hidden -- the fact that its stance on contraception is a marginalized minority view in our church, defended largely by a male celibate hierarchy."
Daniel C. Maguire, a leading Catholic theologian, also took issue with the Vatican and with scholars at a prestigious Islamic university in Cairo who condemned the draft U.N. policy Aug. 11. A statement issued by Al Azhar University said the draft document condones extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion and possibly prostitution.
Dr. Maguire, a professor of moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that "the vast majority of religious leaders worldwide" support the U.N. proposals to control population growth.
In Islam, as in Catholic and Protestant Christianity and in Buddhism, "there are strong liberal traditions favoring family planning including contraception and, in certain circumstances, abortion," Dr. Maguire said. He added, "Al Azhar University simply represents one of the voices of Islam, not the voice of Islam."
Dr. Maguire is president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.
The Venerable Khandro Rinpoche, a 26-year-old Tibetan woman trained from childhood to head a nunnery in Sikkim, will discuss environmental and social action from a Buddhist perspective Aug. 31 at Mays Chapel United Methodist Church in Timonium.
Her appearance is sponsored by the Baltimore Shambhala Center, 2112 N. Charles St.
Presiding Bishop John R. Bryant of the 10th African Methodist Episcopal District will lead a revival Aug. 29 through Sept. 2 at Sharon Baptist Church, 1373 N. Stricker St.
The services each day will begin at 7 p.m.
Bishop Bryant is a former pastor of West Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church. Information: 669-6667.