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Muslim Leaders Speak against World Population Conference

By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times
CAIRO, Egypt

In a dingy suite of offices rising above the human shouting, bird warbling and airborne feathers of a crowded poultry market, Essam Eryan, a physician and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, sits below a poster of an Earth ensnared by a giant octupus named the United States.

He has to raise his voice slightly to make himself heard.

"What is wrong with big families? My own opinion is: a big family is much better than a small family. It gives a very good chance to bring up children well, to give them a good education in traditions, to reduce selfishness," Eryan says.

"The responsible way to stop the population problem is to make development and create jobs. So we can welcome the newcomers, not kill them."

Egypt has 58 million people, and counts 1 million more every year. About 96 percent of its population is crammed onto the small sliver of green valley that straddles the River Nile. Poor families are stuffed into tenements that rise, bleak and sand-colored, toward a sky fouled by factory and auto emissions. Walking down a Cairo sidewalk is like pushing through a human sea.

Here, where the International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo's new conference center next month will attempt to set a global population strategy, a wave of Islamic resistance is mounting on issues of abortion, family relations and sex education that are likely to form some of the cornerstones of the new policy.

Muslim militants around the world are rallying to defeat such a program. They believe it is aimed at stemming the birth of new Muslims while leaving them impoverished, underdeveloped and unprepared to stand as equals in what many see as an impending contest of civilizations between East and West.

Even the restrained clerics of orthodox Islam have raised a voice of protest, arguing that many of the conference's frames of reference on family lifestyles, women's inheritance rights and abortion run counter to the teachings of the Koran.

Cairo's biweekly As-Shaab, the voice of the Labor Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, this week published a banner headline: "The Crimes of the Population Conference... For the Genocide of Muslims and Oppressed Peoples."

Venerable Al-Azhar University, the seat of religious scholarship for the Muslim world, weighed in with a strongly worded condemnation of the conference's draft action program, which it said conflict with Islamic teachings on abortion, homosexuality and traditional family values.

Islam's response to the global population crisis will be crucial to any success in curbing human growth. Currently Muslims make up some 20 percent of the world's population, and birth rates, elevated in all Third World countries, are highest in Muslim nations.