UNITED NATIONS — Religious battle lines tightened Tuesday for the upcoming International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo as Saudi Arabia and Sudan withdrew and two other Muslim states downgraded their missions.
The Roman Catholic Church has mounted a spirited attack on the U.N. conference's draft proposals for several months, castigating the discussions of birth control and abortion as immoral.
But the chorus of complaints also has swelled in recent weeks from Muslims who insist that the subjects are abhorrent and contrary to Islamic faith.
Critics have accused Pope John Paul II of seeking an alliance with Islamic extremists to oppose the conference, but this has been denied by the Vatican.
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian who belongs to his country's Coptic Christian minority, professed a lack of concern over the withdrawals from the conference. He told reporters that U.N. member states "are free to come or not to come" to such conferences.
He said he expects the conference "to establish the relationship between the demographic explosion on one hand and development on the other."
But he added that no one was forced to follow the recommendations.
The militantly Muslim Sudanese government urged other governments to follow its lead in withdrawing from the conference, which opens Monday, because the conference would encourage "the spread of immoral and irreligious values."
Sudanese Minister of Culture Abdul Basit Sabadrat said that opposition to the conference amounted to "a kind of jihad (holy war) against corruption and the new hegemony which some seek to impose on us."
Saudi Arabia, a staunchly Muslim nation, offered no reason for its withdrawal.
Further evidence of Muslim distaste for the conference came as both Prime Minister Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh canceled plans to attend and announced that low-ranking officials would take their places.
Muslim distaste for the conference is so great that some faithful filed a lawsuit trying to force its cancellation, accusing the United Nations of organizing a conference that ran counter to Islamic beliefs. But an Egyptian court, after a 30-second hearing, rejected the suit Tuesday, stating that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had the right to invite the conference to Egypt.
After the ruling, a group of Islamic militants told a news conference that Egypt would not be hosting the conference in Cairo if American and U.N. officials had not threatened to cut off or reduce its economic aid. This was denied by both American and U.N. officials.
About 15,000 foreigners--delegates, journalists and members of non-governmental organizations--are expected to attend the conference.
There have been threats against them and a good deal of nervousness about the possibility of a militant Muslim attack.
In a statement, a coalition of women's organizations, meeting at U.N. headquarters, denounced the threats as "another example of the violence and intimidation which are directed against people who are working to improve the condition of the world's women."