WASHINGTON, April 7 (RNS)-- Whenever Bill Clinton, Madonna, and Pope John Paul II agree on something--anything!--people stand up and take notice. And with as many as 30,000 people expected to descend on Washington this weekendbecause of the same issue, it's clearly more than just talk.

The issue mobilizing this broad coalition of support is debtrelief for struggling Third World countries. Saddled by $127 billion inforeign debt, more than 30 poor countries end up spending more on theirdebts than they do on education or health care.

The religious community--including Protestant, Catholic, and Jewishgroups--sees the issue as one of fundamental fairness and socialjustice. Joined by Hollywood, they have largely convinced Washingtonlawmakers to erase much of the debt so these countries can put thatmoney toward anti-poverty and health programs.

On Sunday (April 9), between 10,000 and 30,000 people are expectedfor a rally in Washington to push the issue and urge Congress toactually appropriate the money they have promised for debt relief.

Demonstrators plan to form a "human chain" stretching from theCapitol building past the White House to the World Bank to symbolize theeconomic bondage in struggling countries.

"I think this issue is, in the minds of many, something that touchesthe fundamental issues of justice for the followers of every religiousgroup in the world," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of theReligious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Saperstein plans to speak atSunday's rally.

Two years ago, the idea of a "Jubilee" campaign to forgive ThirdWorld debt was talked about only in diplomatic and theological circles.But when the pope declared 2000 as a Holy Year of Jubilee, he made thedebt issue a central part of the celebrations.

The issue took center stage after last year's devastation inHonduras caused by Hurricane Mitch and the recent catastrophic floods inMozambique. Religious leaders--particularly in mainline Protestantchurches--said it is impossible for these countries to recover fromsuch disasters if all their money is going overseas.

The debt-relief campaign has emerged as the most significant issuefor the unified religious community since the anti-apartheid protests ofthe 1980s. Moreover, the broad base of support--and the ensuingsuccess of the movement--has helped erase any doubts of the influenceof the religious community beyond the pew.

Its model is explicitly biblical. In Leviticus 25, God commandsMoses to proclaim a year of Jubilee once every 50 years. In that year,God said, debts will be settled, slaves will be set free, and land willbe returned to its original owner.

Taking that biblical model, religious leaders successfully pushed todesignate 2000 as a sort of modern Jubilee. Without it, they say,impoverished countries will continue to languish in debt and innocentpeople will continue to die.

The dismal economic picture in the Third World is nothing short ofperilous. Money that could be spent on food or health programs insteadgoes to foreign creditors. Madagascar, for example, spends three timesas much on debt payments as it does on education.

Nicaragua spends almost a fifth of its budget on foreign debt, whiledevoting only 4% to education. Zambia spends $30 per person onrepaying debt, but only $17 per person on health each year.

Meeting last summer in Germany, the leaders of the G-8industrialized countries agreed to settle $50 billion in debts, with theU.S. kicking in more than $900 million.

On the U.S. side of the equation, President Clinton and Congressagreed to forgive $320 million in debt owed directly to the U.S., andcontribute $600 million toward a fund to erase the "multilateral" debtowed to entities such as the World Bank and the International MonetaryFund.

Most of that money has been promised, but not all of it has beenappropriated in Congress. Religious leaders are now pushing Congress toapprove the remaining $435 million.

In exchange for forgiving that debt, poor nations have agreed tochannel that money to health and anti-poverty programs. Now that theU.S. has joined the initiative, other Western leaders--namely Britainand France--have followed.

The success of the campaign has been an answer to prayer forreligious leaders.

"This has been a remarkable witness for the churches to show thatthey are still relevant on the U.S. political scene," said Tom Hart, thedirector of government relations for the Episcopal Church.

Hart said Episcopalians are especially interested in this issuebecause the Anglican Church's largest growth has been in sub-SaharanAfrica, in nations hit hardest by the debt crisis

. "These are ourpeople," he said.

Religious leaders seem to agree that debt cancellation is good foreveryone, including U.S. pocketbooks. Developing countries that cancancel their debts can rebuild their economies and infrastructure,providing attractive markets for U.S. investments.