Islamic Bloc, Christian Right Team Up to Lobby U.N.

By Colum Lynch

Special to The Washington Post

Monday, June 17, 2002; Page A01

UNITED NATIONS -- Conservative U.S. Christian organizations have joined forces with Islamic governments to halt the expansion of sexual and political protections and rights for gays, women and children at United Nations conferences.

The new alliance, which coalesced during the past year, has received a major boost from the Bush administration, which appointed antiabortion activists to key positions on U.S. delegations to U.N. conferences on global economic and social policy.

But it has been largely galvanized by conservative Christians who have set aside their doctrinal differences, cemented ties with the Vatican and cultivated fresh links with a powerful bloc of more than 50 moderate and hard-line Islamic governments, including Sudan, Libya, Iraq and Iran. "We look at them as allies, not necessarily as friends," said Austin Ruse, founder and president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a New York-based organization that promotes conservative values at U.N. social conferences. "We have realized that without countries like Sudan, abortion would have been recognized as a universal human right in a U.N. document."

The alliance of conservative Islamic states and Christian organizations has placed the Bush administration in the awkward position of siding with some of its most reviled adversaries -- including Iraq and Iran -- in a cultural skirmish against its closest European allies, which broadly support expanding sexual and political rights.

U.S. and Iranian officials even huddled during coffee breaks at the U.N. summit on children in New York last month, according to U.N. diplomats. But the partnership also has provided the administration an opportunity to demonstrate that it shares many social values with Islam at a time when the United States is being criticized in the Muslim world for its continued support of Israel and the nine-month-old war on terrorism. "We have tried to point out there are some areas of agreement between [us] and a lot of Islamic countries on these social issues," a U.S. official said. "The main issue that brings us all together is defending the family values, the natural family," added Mokhtar Lamani, a Moroccan diplomat who represents the 53-nation Organization of Islamic Conferences at the United Nations. "The Republican administration is so clear in defending the family values."

Lamani said he was first approached by U.S. Christian non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, at a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on AIDS in New York in June 2001.

Liberal Western activists and governments, he said, had offended the religious and cultural sensitivities of Islamic countries by proposing that a final conference declaration include explicit references to the need to protect prostitutes, intravenous drug users and "men who have sex with men" from contracting AIDS.

"It was totally unacceptable for us," Lamani said. "The Vatican and so many NGOs came up to us saying this is exactly the same position we are defending."

The Islamic-Christian alliance claimed an important victory at the U.N. children's meeting last month.

The Bush administration led the coalition in blocking an effort by European and Latin American countries to include a reference in the final declaration to "reproductive health care services," a term the conservatives believed could be used to promote abortion. The U.S. team included John Klink, a former adviser to the Vatican at previous U.N. conferences; Janice Crouse, a veteran antiabortion advocate at Concerned Women of America; and Paul J. Bonicelli of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., a Christian institution that requires its professors teach creationism.

The Christian groups and Islamic countries have been seeking to build on those gains at subsequent U.N. gatherings, pressing for greater restrictions on abortion at an annual meeting of the World Health Organization last month and later at a U.N. preparatory conference on sustainable development in Bali, Indonesia.

"The rest of the world saw a shift in the debate" at the children's summit, said Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy group. "It wasn't just pure defense. They are on the offensive here." Some Western countries and liberal activists say they are alarmed by the influence of the Christian right at the United Nations, where more liberal women's rights organizations have held sway for the past decade.

"They are trying to undo some of the landmark agreements that were reached in the 1990s, particularly on women's rights and family planning," a U.N.-based European diplomat said. "The U.S. decision to come into the game on their side has completely changed the dynamics."

"This alliance shows the depths of perversity of the [U.S.] position," said Adrienne Germaine, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. "On the one hand we're presumably blaming these countries for unspeakable acts of terrorism, and at the same time we are allying ourselves with them in the oppression of women."

The World Policy Center, a Mormon group established in 1997 to promote family values through an alliance that includes conservative Christians, the Catholic Church and Islamic governments, is holding a conference next month at Brigham Young University School of Law.

It will bring antiabortion advocates and legal critics of the United Nations together with more than 60 U.N. diplomats, including delegates from conservative Catholic and Islamic countries.

Ruse first outlined his strategy for maximizing the conservatives' leverage at the United Nations at a 1999 meeting in Geneva of the World Congress of Families, a gathering of advocates of conservative family values. It involves "lavish[ing] all our attention" on a coalition of 12 antiabortion countries that are willing to fight for their cause at U.N. sessions, he said.

Religious leaders and politicians in the United States and in these select countries in the developing world should be persuaded "to encourage these governments to defend life and family at the United Nations."

He also boasted that his tactics were beginning to seize the initiative from advocates for the rights of children, women and gays. "Our team was in a tiny conference room leaning over the backs of diplomats, assisting with the drafting of the conference document," he said.

"We broke all the rules of U.N. lobbying, which forbids leafleting on the floor of a U.N. conference. We had our people fan out across the floor of the conference and we placed this letter in the hand of every delegate."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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