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 weekend because of the same issue, it's clearly more than just talk.

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

The religious community--including Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups--sees the issue as one of fundamental fairness and social justice. Joined by Hollywood, they have largely convinced Washington lawmakers to erase much of the debt so these countries can put that money toward anti-poverty and health programs.

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

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

"I think this issue is, in the minds of many, something that touches the fundamental issues of justice for the followers of every religious group in the world," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Saperstein plans to speak at Sunday's rally.

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

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

The debt-relief campaign has emerged as the most significant issue for the unified religious community since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. Moreover, the broad base of support--and the ensuing success of the movement--has helped erase any doubts of the influence of the religious community beyond the pew.

Its model is explicitly biblical. In Leviticus 25, God commands Moses 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 will be returned to its original owner.

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

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

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

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

On the U.S. side of the equation, President Clinton and Congress agreed to forgive $320 million in debt owed directly to the U.S., and contribute $600 million toward a fund to erase the "multilateral" debt owed to entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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

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

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

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

Hart said Episcopalians are especially interested in this issue because the Anglican Church's largest growth has been in sub-Saharan Africa, in nations hit hardest by the debt crisis. "These are our people," he said.

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

But beyond all the economic charts and figures lies a fundamental spiritual issue. The religious community says it is unfair for a segment of the world to languish in poverty while the rest of the world, buoyed by a soaring stock market, enjoys unprecedented prosperity.

"People are really hearing the message and taking it to heart," said Lisa Wright, the chair of the public policy committee for Jubilee 2000/USA. "People are sort of looking at the new millennium and want to do something meaningful to mark it."

While the battle for public opinion may be largely won, there is still more that religious leaders would like to see. Jerry Flood, a policy adviser for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said there are more countries than the 35 or so listed by the U.S. government that could benefit from debt relief.

Flood said Haiti and Cambodia, for example, are not scheduled to be included in the campaign, but should be. In addition, Flood wants to ensure that the level of debt relief is enough to make a real difference for these countries.

Most important, Flood said the governments of these countries need to take steps to make sure the money filters to the people who need it the most--the poorest of the poor.

"These debts have often been contracted without any knowledge or participation by the poor people of these countries," Flood said. "These debts are largely contracted by the governments, yet it's the poor who are going to suffer the most in terms of the revenues that are foregone in order to pay the debts."

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