During his remarks, Clinton called alleviating the financial struggles ofThird World countries--a stance that has gained widespread support this yearfrom the religious community--``a moral issue.''
``I think that it is very much in the interest of America to have big,large-scale debt relief if the countries that get the relief are committed toand held accountable to good governance and using the money not to build upmilitary power but to invest in the human needs of their people,'' thepresident said.
The wealth of America should propel its citizens to want to help others,Clinton told the gathering that included representatives of Christian, Jewish,Muslim, Baha'i, Hindu and Sikh communities.
``I do not believe that a nation, anymore than a church, a synagogue, amosque, a particular religious faith, can confine its compassion and concernand commitment only within its borders, especially if you happen to be in themost fortunate country in the world,'' Clinton said.
``I think it is a moral issue,'' Clinton added. ``How can we sit here on the biggest mountain of wealth we have ever accumulated, that any nation in all of human history has ever accumulated, and not'' share that wealth? he continued.
While Congress has supported forgiving bilateral debts--owed to the UnitedStates from poor countries--Clinton said it still needs to appropriatehundreds of millions of dollars for the Highly Indebted Poor CountriesInitiative that would forgive multilateral debts due to organizations like theInternational Monetary Fund.
Rich nations' response to international debt was a theme of protests during last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and at this year's International Monetary Fund and World Bank gathering in Washington.
Clinton noted such dissent and said he ``doesn't buy it.''
About 120 people packed the State Dining Room to hear the remarks fromClinton, who also called on religious leaders' support for relieving health andeducation crises in nations across the globe.
The president urged them to help him increase efforts to assist countriesfighting AIDS and drug research companies developing vaccines for malaria, AIDSand tuberculosis, which he said are responsible for a quarter of the world'sdeaths each year. He proposed increasing by $100 million the money spent by theUnited States on AIDS efforts and instituting a billion-dollar tax credit forcompanies developing vaccines.
``It ought to be an American obligation,'' he said. ``This is a seriousglobal problem.
Clinton also spoke of the need ``to do more to universalize education sothat everybody everywhere will be able to take advantage of what we're comingto take for granted.''
As they dined on doughnut-shaped peaches and frittata with tomatoes, thespiritual leaders took part in an almost two-hour discussion with thepresident.
Afterward, several in attendance praised Clinton for his encouragement ofinternational debt relief.
Religious leaders, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrickof Newark, N.J., said U.S. decisions on debt relief will influence othercountries' decisions.
``If the United States fails to exercise leadership by providing thisextremely small portion of our budget for debt relief, other creditors arepossibly going to back out,'' said McCarrick, a member of the board of CatholicRelief Services.
``We strongly urge Congress and the administration to work together inthese next few weeks to achieve full funding for debt relief.''
Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts said relieving the debts ofpoor countries is fiscally and morally prudent.
Sister Christine Vladimiroff, chair of the board for Bread for the World, aChristian organization that works against hunger, agreed.
``Poor country debt keeps children from getting the food and education theyneed,'' she said. ``Debt relief is hunger relief. Debt relief is medical carefor children.''
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of ReformJudaism, said debt relief is the latest of important topics discussed at thebreakfast, held annually during Clinton's administration.
``This is an institution that President Clinton has helped regularize,'' hesaid. ``This has been a remarkable set of conversations.''