AP 08/10 1994 09:06 EDT V0574 The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- A Vatican campaign to forge an anti-abortion alliance at a population summit in Cairo next month has put pressure on Italy, causing new strains in Premier Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government.

It has set one Cabinet minister against another and brought demands that the government keep its hands off the country's abortion law, one of the most liberal in Europe.

Italian officials recently disclosed that the Cairo conference was an issue during Foreign Minister Antonio Martino's talks at the Vatican last month.

But the issue came to a head Wednesday after the Vatican Radio broadcast an interview with Altero Matteoli in which the minister for the environment in the Berlusconi government called abortion a "type of homicide."

Raffaele Costa, the minister of health, shot back that he found it unacceptable "that someone who is exercising a right under the law should be called a murderer."

The Vatican has been staging its biggest lobbying effort in memory for the U.N. Conference on Population and Development, pressing the international community to write in a provision in the final document that would bar any promotion of abortion. In a briefing paper released this week, the Vatican said the future of humanity was at stake.

The Vatican is counting on a coalition of Roman Catholic and Islamic countries to rally to its side.

Pope John Paul II and President Clinton clashed over abortion during a Vatican audience in June. Clinton insisted his administration would not promote abortion as a means of birth control but made clear it would support abortion's availibility.

Although Italy is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the legislature legalized abortion in 1978, permitting abortions virtually on demand in the first three months of pregnancy in state-run hospitals. As a concession to the church, doctors opposed to abortion can declare themselves conscientious objectors and refuse to perform them.

John Paul suffered one of the biggest defeats of his papacy when voters in a church-promoted referendum upheld the law in 1981.

Marco Pannella, who as leader of the Radical Party helped write the 1978 law, urged that it remain untouched.

"You can't call hundreds of thousands of women murderers," he said, adding that he had faith Berlusconi would discourage any attempt to undo the law.

According to official figures, 146,639 legal abortions were performed in 1992, down from a high of 231,401 in 1983.

Matteoli, one of five Cabinet ministers from far-right National Alliance, said Italian policy in Cairo has not yet been decided but he believed it would be close to his personal views. He is a member of the delegation.

The head of the delegation, Antonio Guidi, minister of the family from Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Let's Go Italy) movement, appeared sympathetic to the Vatican position.

In an interview Wednesday in the leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, Guidi said it was too early to spell out Italy's stance at Cairo but "one point is already clear: life, in whatever phase of its existence, is in itself richness."