AP 7 Sep 94 18:14 EDT V0029 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- The Vatican has become a major player at the U.N. population conference -- and many people are wondering why.

Its uncompromising position against abortion, which many population experts consider a marginal issue, has divided nations and dominated attention during the first three days of the conference.

But what's the Holy See, seat of Roman Catholicism, doing at a meeting of world governments anyway? And why do so many nations heed it?

The latter question has 950 million answers. That's the estimated number of Catholics worldwide, and governments with large Catholic populations care what they think.

Pope John Paul II is also seen as a moral authority by many non-Catholics around the world. The pope believes morality has no boundaries, and that the church has a duty to express its views on ethical issues.

The pope "has stressed rightly that these (population) challenges touch on crucial issues," top Vatican delegate Renato Martino said in a speech Wednesday. "They concern the future of humanity."

Under international law, the Holy See has sovereign status, and some 155 countries have diplomatic relations with the tiny city-state. The Vatican has permanent observer status at the United Nations, which gives it a right to take part in U.N. conferences.

The Vatican participated avidly in months of meetings to prepare for the population conference, and attended a recent human rights conference in Vienna. It is also a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Some at the conference have criticized the Vatican's activist role.

"How come a country, a so-called country, that is in essence 800 square acres of office space in the middle of Rome, that has citizenry that excludes women and children, seems to attract the most attention in talking about public policy that deals with women and children?" said Frances Kissling, president of the U.S.-based Catholics for a Free Choice.

Others complain that the fight over abortion, which has focused on the language in a single paragraph of a 113-page policy document, is distracting the conference from other important issues.

The conference recommendations aren't binding on any nation, but delegates hope to achieve a broad consensus on ways to slow the world's population growth so the final document will carry more weight. Whether the Vatican joins the consensus depends on the final wording.

The Vatican delegation insists that as is, the document endorses unlimited abortion and could make access to abortions an international right.

In two previous population conferences, in 1984 and 1974, the Vatican did not sign off on the final document, objecting to language referring to the sexual health both of couples and individuals.

The Holy See delegation in Cairo includes seasoned diplomats, officials of Vatican family institutes, and one demographer. Eight of the 17 members are members of the clergy.

The delegation is led by the head of the Vatican U.N. mission, Archbishop Renato R. Martino. The top negotiator is the Rev. Diarmuid Martin, secretary of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.

The No. 3 man is Bishop James McHugh of Camden, N.J., who attended that last two conferences and closely follows population issues in the United States.

Also on the team is Joaquin Navarro, the pope's spokesman and a member of his inner circle.