'Holy alliance' tries to wreck birth-control conference: Fundamentalists are spreading lies about the last-minute attempt to avert a world population explosion. Robert Fisk reports

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THE United Nations' population conference has succeeded in forging even stranger alliances than the 1991 Gulf war. Saudi Arabia's decision to pull out of the Cairo discussions places it in a new and holy trinity of condemnation alongside Iran and the Vatican. It was followed yesterday by a Sudanese boycott.

King Fahd, President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Pope and General Omar Al-Bashir now find themselves ranged with Libya, the clerics of the Al-Azhar mosque and Egypt's most dangerous Muslim extremist group in criticising, ignoring, opposing or threatening what is billed as one of the last chances to prevent a world population explosion.

The political embarrassment of the Egyptian government will add to the country's security concerns. Egypt's police have to guard the likes of US Vice-President Al Gore, Tom Cruise, President Suharto of Indonesia, Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, 17 other heads of state and governments and a flurry of other personalities among the 20,000 delegates.

A dose of hypocrisy is at work. It is most evident in the accusations made against the conference's organisers - that they wish to encourage abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, 'fornication' and what the Grand Sheikh Gad el-Haq Ali Gad el-Haq of Al-Azhar primly called 'pernicious diseases'.

All this to attack a conference which the Egyptians thought would encourage tourists to return to Egypt and provide proof that President Mubarak had won his war against 'fundamentalist terrorism'.

The conference will discuss population, maternal and infant mortality, life expectancy, female education, equality, contraception, population distribution and family planning. It is supposed to provide recommendations to balance world population and resources for the next 20 years.

Given the misrepresentation and the lies being fostered about its aims, many delegates will have to remind themselves why they set out to discuss the world's population time-bomb in Africa's most overcrowded city.

Take the so-called pact between the Vatican and Iran, a nation described by a British newspaper last week as 'outflanking even the ecclesiastical bigwigs in Rome in its fundamentalist attitudes to women's health and birth control'.

In fact 65 per cent of Iranian women use contraceptives, 1 per cent more than Japanese women, with the full support of the state. Contraceptives are distributed free of charge in Iran to all married women who ask for them. Iranian television broadcasts programmes on family planning. Iranian schools teach sex education. Although one Tehran newspaper reported 'full endorsement' of views on abortion between a Vatican envoy and President Rafsanjani's brother, Mohamed, the deputy Iranian Foreign Minister, the President is sending his divorced daughter to lead the Iranian delegation to the conference.

The delegation will probably support birth control, though not abortion, because Iran regards high population growth as a threat to development.

Little wonder that the Papal Nuncio to Egypt became involved last week in a shouting match with a senior Egyptian official who said that Egypt would not allow the Pope to turn the conference into an ideological battlefield. The Egyptian told the surprised Nuncio that Italy's women practise birth control and that the Vatican had 'no right' to condemn contraceptives in a country like Egypt, overburdened with 61 million people, 98 per cent of whom live on 4 per cent of the land.

Some of the heat generated by the conference's opponents stems from a simple misunderstanding. An Egyptian minister last week explained that references to sex education in schools do not mean that young people will be encouraged to have sex outside marriage. Confusion arose because 'jins', sex in Arabic, has acquired pornographic connotations.

Despite the Pope's apparent belief that he can ride an Islamic charger in his crusade against family planning, it seems that only his objections to abortion will find resonance among his supposed Muslim allies. Many Muslim medical officials agree that Islam forbids abortion, unless the life of the mother is in danger. A few Muslim scholars suggest the foetus has no soul until 120 days after fertilisation. They refer to a saying attributed to the the Prophet. It says that only after that period 'is sent to him (the seed) the angel who blows the breath of life into him.'

None of this will make much difference to the Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic Group), whose killing of a teenage Spanish tourist last week was followed by blood-thirsty threats against anyone who participates in the 'conference of licentiousness'. Given the abysmal relations between Cairo and Khartoum, Sudan's boycott was predictable. The claim by its Minister of Social Planning, Ali Osman Taha, that the conference aims to destroy 'human society' in the Islamic world will find sympathy among millions of Muslims who suspect that the UN wishes to retard the growth of Muslim societies to the advantage of the nominally Christian West.

Saudi Arabia's withdrawal, announced with customary timidity by an official who refused to give a reason or his own name, reflects King Fahd's fears that he would encounter even more pressure from fundamentalist clerics if he appears to approve of the conference's aims. Ironically, none of the conference's critics, whether of the moderate or ferocious variety, recalls the outraged attitude which Washington itself took towards the United Nations Fund for Population Activities eight years ago, when the Republican administration refused assistance to UNFPA on the grounds that it advocated abortion as a means of contraception.

If the UN is looking for optimistic signs, it will have noted that a Cairo court rejected a claim by Muslim lawyers that the conference should be cancelled because it ran counter to the Islamic laws of Egypt. The court said President Mubarak could invite whom he wanted to Egypt. It might have added that Mr Mubarak probably wishes he had thought for a little longer before he sent sent out invitations in the first place.

(Photograph omitted)