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Pakistan Presses Religious Conservatives to Support Family Planning

Pakistan is urging Islamic scholars to help promote birth control to slow the country's strong population growth. But the message is in danger of being lost in the deeply conservative Islamic nation.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has called on Muslim religious leaders to help change popular misconceptions about family planning.

Speaking to an international conference on population development attended by clerics from more than a dozen Islamic countries, Mr. Aziz on Wednesday insisted birth control is not unIslamic. He acknowledged, however, that the government needs the help of Islamic scholars to convince the public.

But many religious leaders here contend that contraception, and the government's family planning campaign itself, amount to religious heresy.

The Pakistani government is promoting the widespread use of contraceptives to control its population of 155 million, which is growing by almost two percent a year. The campaign is central to Pakistan's anti-poverty programs, with at least a third of the population currently living below the poverty line.

Dr. Irum Qamar Raja, who helps run the family planning program, says changing perceptions is hardest in rural communities where conservative Islamic scholars have the greatest influence.

And it is here, she says, that the need for family planning is greatest.

"Today, the average family size [in Pakistan] is 7.5," she said. "Unfortunately where we are working, like in Baluchistan…and all the other remote areas, the family size is not 7.5, it's 14 or 15.5."

Dr. Raja says having so many children essentially condemns families to a lifetime of poverty.

She insists there is no specific Islamic teaching that prohibits family planning, but she admits it is difficult to change people's opinions.

Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, says rising incomes resulting from a red hot economy have yet to reach the country's poorest families, and he says population growth is a major reason.

"However, because of the population growth, we need to do more and more to…bring the level of poverty down," he said.

Pakistani officials say by the year 2020 they hope to cut the average number of children by more than half, to about two per household.

The U.S. government has budgeted more than $25 million in aid to improve health and family planning practices in Pakistan, including promoting the use of contraceptives.