The movement, known as Jubilee 2000 USA, is led by a broad coalition of social justice, labor and environmental groups. At the forefront of the campaign, 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 for many mainline Protestant and Catholic groups. In many ways, the debt relief issue has become the most significant social justice problem to unite religious groups since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.
"It is the power of the Year of Jubilee that people have come together and said we want to do something to mark the millennium, and we want to do something good and just and global," said Jo Marie Griesgraber, chairwoman of Jubilee 2000 USA.
At the end of the rally, demonstrators formed a three-mile-long human chain stretching from the Capitol building past the White House to the headquarters of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Organizers said the human chain was meant to represent the chains of economic bondage faced by poor nations.
While organizers expected up to 10,000 to 30,000 people to rally on Sunday, the turnout was far smaller. Estimates put the crowd at 3,000-5,000, and leaders said an unexpectedly cold wind kept many indoors.
Still, Griesgraber said she was pleased so many different communities turned out to support the campaign. The wind, she said, was a sign of God's approval.
"The reason we have such a strong wind is because the Holy Spirit will not be suppressed," she said. "She's up there going nuts."
The protest was decidedly less raucous than the economic protests that shut down Seattle last fall and are expected to cause headaches in the nation's capital next weekend. Organizers said they hoped Sunday's peaceful protest would set the tone for next weekend's sit-ins at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund when the Seattle protesters come to Washington.
Two years ago, few took the idea of global debt relief seriously. That began to change when Pope John Paul II declared 2000 a Year of Holy Jubilee and pushed the debt relief issue. The pope's support pushed many other religious 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 the urging of religious groups and the Jubilee 2000 campaign, Congress and President Clinton have agreed to join an international plan to forgive $28 billion in foreign debt.
On the U.S. side of the equation, that means Washington will contribute more than $900 million, part of which will forgive debts owed to the United States. The rest will go toward an international fund to erase debts owed to "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 to urge that the United States actually pay for the debt relief that was promised last year.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, told the rally the issue of global economic bondage hits home for Jews as they prepare to celebrate the Passover season.
"It is time for us to do what Moses demanded of Pharaoh and say, `Let these nations go,'" Saperstein said. "Let them go from debt burdens they can never hope to repay."
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a global anti-hunger lobby based in U.S. churches, said that unless poor countries find relief from staggering debt payments, people will continue to go hungry.
"These unpayable debts are one of the reasons for the persistence of hunger in places like Mozambique and Tanzania," Beckmann said.
People came to Washington from all points of the country, bringing with them colorful signs, flags and bags of paper chains to line the National Mall. Families pushing strollers were joined by Franciscan monks, ordained clergy and hundreds of union workers.
"We believe this is a religious question, a moral question," said Sister Marlene Bertke, who came to Washington with seven other members of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa. "These people who are dying are our brothers and sisters."