Saudis to skip meeting on population in Egypt

August 30, 1994|By New York Times News Service

CAIRO, Egypt -- Saudi Arabia will not participate in the United Nations population conference next month in Cairo, U.N. officials here said yesterday, giving rise to fears that other Islamic nations will follow the lead of the Saudis.

The Saudis' withdrawal supplies political ammunition to both moderate and militant Islamic groups that have condemned the conference as a plot to dominate the Muslim world by spreading Western "immorality."

The agenda for the conference, which has also drawn fire from the Vatican, addresses the impact that population pressures have on development. As one part of this study, the conference members are to discuss family planning, contraception, abortion, and other issues that many Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and others oppose on moral grounds.

Last week, Saudi Arabia sent a letter to the secretariat of the International Conference on Population and Development saying that it would not attend the talks, scheduled for Sept. 5 through 13, said Jyoti Shankar Singh, executive director of the conference. "They gave no reason," he said.

Four other countries -- Eritrea, Nauru, Liechtenstein, and Monaco -- also do not plan to attend, U.N. officials said. It is not clear why those countries decided not to take part.

A debate over the conference has been raging for weeks in Saudi Arabia, with several important commentators picturing the event as an all-out assault on Islam. Saudi Arabia, the site of Mecca, the most important Muslim shrine, has long regarded itself as the guardian of Islam.

"This is an attempt to tear the values and beliefs of Islam from their roots," said Mohamed Salahideen, a leading columnist. "It is a ferocious attack on Islam and Muslims and their most holy beliefs."

Others, including Mohamed Abdu Yaman, a former information minister, argued against boycotting the event, arguing that Saudi Arabia could help influence the debate.

But yesterday, the mufti, Sheik Abdel-Aziz bin Baz, the kingdom's highest religious figure, urged Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world to stay away.

"We call on Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world to boycott the conference," he told the French news agency Agence France-Presse. "It is incompatible with the Muslim religion."

The Muslim World League, an international organization that gets most of its funds from Saudi Arabia, is to meet today to discuss the conference's agenda, which the group's clerics are expected to condemn.

In earlier statements, the league said that the basic document drafted for the conference gave "the impression that it was setting the basis for freedom and equality, but was disguised in fiery slogans propagating licentiousness and discarding religion."

Ayman Amir, the U.N. spokesman in Cairo, played down the fear that the decision by Saudi Arabia might encourage other Muslim countries to stay away, saying that 15 other Arab countries had confirmed they will attend.

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