WASHINGTON, April 10 (RNS)--Thousands of people rallied in here Sunday to urge Congress to erase millions of dollars in foreign debt owed by theworld's poorest countries, saying Washington should look to the Bible forways to begin the new millennium.

The movement, known as Jubilee 2000 USA, is led by a broad coalition ofsocial justice, labor and environmental groups. At the forefront of thecampaign, however, have been the voices of religious leaders who say erasing$28 billion in debt is one way of doing God's work here on Earth.

The debt relief campaign has become the single most important issue formany mainline Protestant and Catholic groups. In many ways, the debt reliefissue has become the most significant social justice problem to unitereligious groups since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.

"It is the power of the Year of Jubilee that people have come togetherand said we want to do something to mark the millennium, and we want to dosomething good and just and global," said Jo Marie Griesgraber, chairwomanof Jubilee 2000 USA.

At the end of the rally, demonstrators formed a three-mile-long humanchain stretching from the Capitol building past the White House to theheadquarters of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Organizerssaid the human chain was meant to represent the chains of economic bondagefaced by poor nations.

While organizers expected up to 10,000 to 30,000 people to rally onSunday, the turnout was far smaller. Estimates put the crowd at3,000-5,000, and leaders said an unexpectedly cold wind kept many indoors.

Still, Griesgraber said she was pleased so many different communitiesturned out to support the campaign. The wind, she said, was a sign of God'sapproval.

"The reason we have such a strong wind is because the Holy Spirit willnot be suppressed," she said. "She's up there going nuts."

The protest was decidedly less raucous than the economic protests thatshut down Seattle last fall and are expected to cause headaches in thenation's capital next weekend. Organizers said they hoped Sunday's peacefulprotest would set the tone for next weekend's sit-ins at the World Bank andInternational Monetary Fund when the Seattle protesters come to Washington.

Two years ago, few took the idea of global debt relief seriously. Thatbegan to change when Pope John Paul II declared 2000 a Year of Holy Jubileeand pushed the debt relief issue. The pope's support pushed many otherreligious groups to sign on to the campaign.

The model for the Jubilee 2000 campaign comes from the biblical Book of Leviticus, where God tells Moses to set aside a year once every 50 years to forgive debts, release slaves and turn land back to its original owners.

The battle for public opinion on debt relief has largely been won. At theurging of religious groups and the Jubilee 2000 campaign, Congress andPresident Clinton have agreed to join an international plan to forgive $28billion in foreign debt.

On the U.S. side of the equation, that means Washington will contributemore than $900 million, part of which will forgive debts owed to the UnitedStates. The rest will go toward an international fund to erase debts owedto "multilateral" organizations such as the World Bank.

While the money has been promised, not all of it has been appropriated.

Many of those at at Sunday's rally lobbied Congress on Monday tourge that the United States actually pay for the debt relief that waspromised last year.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center forReform Judaism, told the rally the issue of global economic bondage hits homefor Jews as they prepare to celebrate the Passover season.

"It is time for us to do what Moses demanded of Pharaoh and say, `Letthese nations go,'" Saperstein said. "Let them go from debt burdens theycan never hope to repay."

The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a globalanti-hunger lobby based in U.S. churches, said that unless poor countriesfind relief from staggering debt payments, people will continue to go hungry.

"These unpayable debts are one of the reasons for the persistence ofhunger in places like Mozambique and Tanzania," Beckmann said.

People came to Washington from all points of the country, bringing withthem colorful signs, flags and bags of paper chains to line the NationalMall. Families pushing strollers were joined by Franciscan monks, ordainedclergy and hundreds of union workers.

"We believe this is a religious question, a moral question," saidSister Marlene Bertke, who came to Washington with seven other members of theBenedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa. "These people who are dying are ourbrothers and sisters."