Vatican, Islamic leaders unite against U.N. policy

CAIRO, EGYPT — CAIRO, Egypt -- Islamic leaders and the Vatican are joining forces to oppose a United Nations conference promoting birth control as the best remedy to limit population growth.

The Vatican is teaming up with Islamic governments it has long condemned, and Sunni Muslims are setting aside more than 1,000 years of enmity and lining up with their Shiite rivals.


The unlikely allies have assailed a preliminary document that sets out remedies for curbing the world population explosion. The U.S.-backed document is being used to set the agenda for the conference on population and development to begin Sept. 5 in Cairo.

The document has set off a firestorm by calling for making contraceptives and family planning services available to adolescents and by suggesting that abortion should be permitted for reasons other than to save a woman's life.


"It seems one of the most important aims of the conference is to facilitate sex, to undermine its passive consequences and to encourage the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of diseases caused by illegal sexual relations," said Sheik Mohammed al-Ghazali, a world-renowned Islamic scholar considered a religious moderate.

Dr. Nafis Sadik, chairwoman of the U.N. conference, said she believes that Islamic leaders are criticizing the U.N. document for political reasons.

"The fundamentalists are being very vocal. They are using false religious arguments [against the conference] to bring down their governments, and I'm not sure how to deal with that," she said.

Attempting to stanch the flow of Vatican opposition, Dr. Sadik met with Vatican leaders but was unable to lower the volume of their criticism.

"I told the Vatican they should be pleased with our approach. Abortion should be looked at as a health issue. But this is where we disagree," said the Pakistani physician, speaking in her New York office.

The Vatican has contacted the Iranian and Libyan governments to discuss the conference agenda. Vatican officials say the papal envoy in Tehran, Monsignor Romeo Panciroli, met recently with Iranian officials.

In Cairo, Sunni Muslim clerics are contacting their longtime Shiite foes in the Iranian Embassy, looking for a sympathetic ear, according to an Iranian diplomat.

The question some conference participants are starting to ask is whether the chorus of opposition will discourage donors from contributing millions of dollars needed to support family planning programs in developing countries.


"It's far too soon to have any effect," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, D.C.

"How the alliance is played out at the conference remains to be seen. One has to look at which Islamic governments are lining up with the Vatican. Right now that seems limited," she said.

Conference organizers dismissed the possibility that the Islamic-Vatican alliance will cause donors to withdraw their pledges.

"In the last month or so, the major donors have announced a big increase in funding," said Hugh O'Haire, spokesman for the United Nations Population Fund.

While Vatican officials have been conducting their campaign behind the scenes, Catholic clerics from Australia to the Philippines have gone public in vilifying the conference. As many as 200,000 turned out early this month for a church-sponsored rally in Manila, capital of the Philippines, denouncing condoms and other forms of birth control as sinful.

But there is certainly no consensus within the Catholic Church. "Many Catholics are concerned by this alliance," said Ms. Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice.


"Most Catholics look to the Vatican as a force in favor of human rights," she said, "and [are upset by] the fact that the Vatican would link up with countries and groups that have not been seen as particularly respectful of either women or human rights in general.

"For us, this alliance is a further sign of the extent that the &L; Vatican is willing to distort the traditional social and human rights mission of the Catholic church in pursuit of an anti-woman, anti-family-planning agenda."

The acerbic attacks from across the world are forcing the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, host of the U.N. gathering, to walk a tightrope.

Since 1992, the secular government has battled Muslim militants who want to install an orthodox Islamic state. The government also faces a great challenge from grass-roots, nonviolent Islamic groups with a mass following who have made deep inroads into mainstream Egyptian society.

In response to criticism among Egypt's Muslims, leaders of al-Azhar, the world's most prestigious institution of Islamic learning, spoke out recently to try to set the record straight.

Since al-Azhar's statement was published, Mr. Mubarak has tried to reassure Egyptians that each country may decide whether to adopt the final recommendations from the U.N. meeting.


And he repeatedly has vowed not to adopt policies that could be considered contrary to Islam.