UNITED NATIONS — Leaders from various religious and secular organizations united March 15 to denounce a campaign by abortion activists to strip the Holy See of its U.N. status.

Pro-choice U.N. lobbyist Frances Kiss-ling said at a March 14 news conference that her organization had received the support of some 400 nongovernmental organizations to ask the United Nations to review the Holy See's role.

At his own press conference the next day, pro-life U.N. lobbyist Austin Ruse announced that he had collected 1,015 signatures from nongovernmental organizations in 50 states, requesting that the Vatican's current status be preserved.

Like Switzerland, the Holy See has the status of permanent observer at the United Nations.

This classification enables the Vatican to participate in debates, but gives it no right to vote in the General Assembly.

“This campaign against the Holy See is an attack upon the U.N. system since it is an attack on a member state,” said Ruse, president of Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute. “Worse than that, this campaign is an aspect of religious intolerance and bigotry that should have no place at the U.N.”

He was joined by an interfaith group defending the Vatican.

“We must reject this censorship; we must reject this bigotry,” said Rabbi Yehuda Levin of Jews for Morality. “A half-century ago, we asked: Where were you for the Jews? Today we ask: Where are you for the Catholics?”

Recent political maneuvers pitting Protestants against Catholics didn't prevent evangelicals from supporting the Vatican's role in the United Nations.

Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, said at the press conference, “While there are important theological differences between Catholics and Protestants, today we are focused on the great moral cause we agree on: protecting the human rights of the unborn child.”

Ruse said that the ecumenical support for the Holy See was unprecedented.

“This is a world historical moment because the groups that have signed this declaration come from all faiths or no faith,” said Ruse. “These groups are not just Catholic, but evangelical, Mormon, Muslim and Jewish. These groups hereby make common cause with the Catholic Church against the vociferous voices of intolerance and bigotry.”

Ruse noted that his organization managed to win more than twice as much support for its position in just 60 days, while the anti-Vatican “See Change” campaign has been running for a year.

At her own press conference the previous day, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said that the Vatican's admission into the United Nations was an “accident.” Her group has no affiliation with or approbation from the Catholic Church.

“In many ways, we have seen the Holy See misuse their status,” said Kissling, mentioning specifically the Vatican's opposition to contraception and abortion for poor countries.

Other speakers were more fierce in their opposition.

“The legal status of the Holy See is questionable,” said Anika Rahman, of the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. “It is as if the Soviet Politburo had a permanent observer status.”

Ruse called the remarks “bigoted” and “intolerant.”

“To compare the Catholic Church to an organ of a Marxist government is just flatly insane,” said Ruse.

Regarding the question of state-hood, Ruse said: “Frances Kissling says the Holy See is not a real state. On this point, her argument is not with the U.N. Neither is it with us. On this question, her argument is with the entire world. As we speak, 177 nations have diplomatic ties to the Holy See.”

‘This campaign against the Holy See is an attack upon the U.N. system since it is an attack on a member state.’

‘Absolute Neutrality’

Archbishop Renato Martino, Vatican permanent observer to the United Nations, explained the Holy See's role recently to ZENIT by citing “the desire of the Holy See is to maintain absolute neutrality in specific political problems.”

Since the Holy See is the representative of the Roman Catholic Church, its interests are not the economic and political interests of other states. Its mission focuses on the human person, he said, and “n keeping with this principle, the Holy See is mainly concerned with all the issues of human rights, of justice, of religious freedom, of development, peace, etc., and attempts to present, always respectfully but without fear, the principles of the Gospel.”

Questions of Impropriety

Questioning the statehood of a member-state on the grounds of the United Nations, as Catholics for a Free Choice did at its press conference, is a violation of U.N. rules, said Ruse.

“What happened here is sufficient for their ... status to be removed” as a nongovernmental organization, said Ruse. “We will be formally protesting with the Economic and Social Council.”

Kissling said that her group merely exercised free-speech rights. “There is no violation of protocol,” she said.

Even if no rules were violated, their effort should be condemned, said Robert L. Maginnis, foreign affairs expert for the Family Research Council.

“The drive to expel the Vatican from the U.N. is obviously intended to intimidate pro-life delegations, especially those from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East,” he said.

Kathryn Balmforth, a law professor from Brigham Young University, said people of all religions should come to the defense of the Vatican.

“In all likelihood, the delegation from the Holy See probably better reflects their values than their own country's delegation.”

(ZENIT contributed to this report.)