The U.S. State Department said that Secretary of State Colin Powell would not attend because of "offensive" language about Israel in some texts, adding that the United States might boycott the Aug. 31-Sept. 7 conference in South Africa altogether.
Washington fears that the occasion will be used by Arab nations to declare Zionism as a racist current and compare Israel to a regime of apartheid.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Tuesday that these proposals, which come from Arab and Asian countries, make the presence of the United States all the more necessary, so that the conference can be useful.
"I hope the U.S. will participate, and that they will come and sit with other governments to move the process forward," Annan told a news conference during a visit to Austria.
President George W. Bush said last Friday that the United States would not attend the conference if the participants "picked on" or denigrated Israel.
Echoing U.S. concerns over Israel, Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley told reporters in Ottawa that he had not decided if he would attend.
A draft declaration, to be read before 7,000 delegates at the nongovernmental meeting, urges the United Nations to accept that Israel is a "discriminatory" state and that Palestinians can resist "occupation by any means."
The document also demands that Israel pay "full compensation" -- effectively reparations -- to Palestinians, described as people living under a foreign military occupying power. "The Palestinian people are one such people, currently enduring a colonialist, discriminatory, military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination," the draft states.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, John Paul II´s delegate at the conference, told the Vatican agency Fides that "no one equates Zionism with racism anymore."
"There remains the problem of referring to the sufferings of the Palestinian people, in keeping with the spirit of the conference," Archbishop Martin added. "There are ongoing negotiations that might lead to a positive solution. The Holy See also makes its contribution here."
There is another motion that has also hampered the conference: Some African countries have requested that slavery be acknowledged as a crime against humanity, in order to obtain indemnification for the slave trade of past centuries. During the preparatory sessions, Washington and the European countries involved did not offer any response to the requests.
Regarding the matter, Archbishop Martin said that "the gestures carried out by the Holy Father during the Jubilee might point to a way of reconciliation: to acknowledge past faults in order to establish new relations of equality and peace."
Yet, the above are not the main topics of the conference. The issues on the agenda include causes and forms of contemporary racism; victims of racism and intolerance; prevention measures; education and protection to uproot racism and intolerance at the local and world level; remedies, resources and measures of compensation against racism; and strategies to obtain an effective equality of rights through an empowering of the United Nations and other international structures.
The conference will also address other problems, such as the trade in human beings, racial and sexual discrimination, racism against Indian populations, and the protection of minorities in multiethnic states. Representatives of 194 countries will participate in the conference. Among them are 30 heads of state and 160 Foreign Affairs Ministers.
The conference is also open to representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) invited in the capacity of observers.
The Vatican delegation to the conference includes Archbishop Martin; Monsignor Frank Dewene, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Divine Word Missionary Father Michael Blume, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People; Andre Sanko (Senegalese layman proposed by the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa); two lay people suggested by the South African Episcopal Conference; Rhyf Gray, collaborator of the Vatican Mission in New York; and Father Martin Alberto Ortega, secretary of the nunciature in South Africa.
Today, the Vatican published the document "The Church and Racism: For a More Fraternal Society," written by the Council for Justice and Peace. The text updates a similarly named 1988 document, with an added introduction.
Among the NGO participants are the South African and Dutch Commissions for Justice and Peace. Also, the Franciscans are organizing seminars on aspects of the conference.