'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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own