NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER
September 9, 1994 .............. page 20
VATICAN CHOOSES SOME DUBIOUS ALLIES FOR CAIRO
The Cairo alliance, if that is, is made up of the Muslim states most opposed to dialogue, to modernity and-incidentally-to democracy.
There was a heated exchange toward the end of August -one observer called it a shouting match-between the papal pro-nuncio to Egypt, Archbishop Antonio Magnoni 74, and an Egyptian official involved in the preparations for the U.N. conference on population and development.
Egypt, said the official, would not allow Pope John Paul or anyone else to turn the conference into an ideological battlefield. The pope had 'no right' to condemn the use of contraceptives in a country overburdened with 61 million people, 98 percent of whom live on 4 percent of the land. Warming to his theme, he told the astonished pro-nuncio that anyway Italian women practice contraception. He could have quoted the recent report of Dr. David Coleman, the Oxford demographer, who points out that since 1980 birthrates have fallen fastest in southern Europe.
'We are now in the bizarre position,' says Coleman, 'where Catholic Spain and Catholic Italy are vying for the position of the lowest-birthrate country.' Catholic Ireland lags not far behind.
Egypt has reason to be worried. Getting the conference at all was a coup for President Hosni Mubarak. He hoped it would demonstrate that he had won the battle against 'fundamentalist terrorism,' and so contribute to the revival of tourism on which the economy depends.
By allying itself with fundamentalist Muslims, the Vatican was doing its cause no good and abandoning its reputation for subtle and effective diplomacy.
A brief glance at the members of this new 'holy alliance' will confirm the point. It is the countries that are least in favor of religious liberty who are joining in.
Saudi Arabia has pulled out of the conference altogether. King Fahd's fear was that fundamentalist clerics would put even more pressure on him if he appeared to endorse the conference's aims. Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The 1991 encyclical 'Redemptoris Missio' pointedly observed- 'In certain countries missionaries are refused entry. In others, not only is evangelization forbidden but conversion as well and even Christian worship.'
He was referring to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where priests have been arrested for saying Mass in the privacy of hotel rooms. The nuncio to Iran is Archbishop Romeo Panciroli, Vatican press officer in the 1970s. His predecessor, Annibale Bugnini, chief architect of Vatican II's liturgical reforms, was holed up in the U.S. Embassy for six months in the early days of the ayatollah. Iran claims to endorse completely the Vatican position on population. This is curious. 65 percent of Iranian women use contraceptives. They are distributed free of charge to married women who ask for them. Iranian TV broadcasts programs on family planning.
Panciroli knows all this. Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani is sending his divorced daughter to head the Iranian delegation at Cairo. She will support contraception while opposing abortion. This can hardly be presented as a triumph for Vatican diplomacy .
The support for the Vatican line from Sudan's Gen. Omar Ai-Bashir is equally ambivalent. The papal visit to Sudan in February 1993 brought no improvement to the situation of the oppressed Christians of the south.
The pro-nuncio to Sudan, German Archbishop Josef Erwin Ender, 57, spends much of his time writing ineffectual letters of protest to Al-Bashir.
The fate of Lebanese Maronite Archbishop Edmond Farhat, 61, apostolic delegate in Libya is less dire. He has behaved 'diplomatically' in discreetly supporting Col. Moammar Gadhafi's claim that the sanctions imposed on his country are intolerable and unjustified. [They were imposed after Libya's refusal to hand over the two men suspected of the 1988 Lockerbie air crash.]
This is not an impressive list of Vatican 'allies.' The situation is made more complicated by Muslim disputes on abortion. Many Muslim physicians hold that Islam forbids abortion, except where the life of the mother is endangered.
A minority view is that the fetus has no soul until 120 days after conception. A saying attributed to the Prophet is quoted- Only after four months - is sent to him [the seed] the angel who blows the breath of life into him.'
A good case can be made for the necessity and urgency of Christian-Muslim dialogue. In 1984 John Paul addressed 60,000 Muslim students in a soccer stadium in Rabat, capital of Morocco.
He stated what Christians and Muslims have in common- a sense of a transcendent God who is compassionate and the source of meaning and morality and a belief in the importance of prayer, almsgiving and pilgrimages.
The pope built on this by his detachment during the 1991 gulf crisis. He was critical of U.S. policy. The invasion of Kuwait, he thundered, was not the only or the most important 'injustice' in the Middle East. The Organization of Islamic States publicly thanked him for this stance.
There was potential for dialogue there, encouraged by Cardinal Francis J. Arinze, Nigerian president of the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.
But the Cairo alliance, if that is what it is, is made up of the Muslim states most opposed to dialogue, to modernity and - incidentally - to democracy.
And interested and ad hoc accord cannot have positive long-term effects on the real dialogue the world needs.