Hunger and poverty have been plaguing humanity since ancient times, and people of faith have been combating it just as long. But activists in that fight believe the world faces a unique opening to actually end extreme hunger--if world leaders get on board.

Faith leaders describing this opportunity are using phrases like "a confessional moment," "a new civil rights movement," and "new abolitionists" fighting "the new slavery" to describe this upsurge of interest in poverty.

"There's a kind of crescendo of concern building around this issue," said Jim McDonald, vice president of policy and programs at Bread for the World, a Christian anti-poverty organization.

That crescendo has built to a roar in recent days.

On July 3, in eight cities around the world, a dizzying array of pop and rock superstars performed in concerts aimed at raising awareness about poverty in Africa.

The event-dubbed Live 8-took place just days before the Group of Eight (G8) Summit meeting in Scotland, at which representatives from the world's wealthiest nations are discussing African aid and debt relief. Live 8 was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, formerly of the Boomtown Rats (and now Sir Bob Geldof). It comes almost 20 years after the 1985 Live Aid concert, also spearheaded by Geldof, which raised money for African famine relief.

Now, with the concerts over and the G8 Summit beginning, activists are keeping the pressure on.

Though "G8 Summit" and "debt relief" seem like rallying cries more fit for a political science conference than a pulpit or concert hall, religious leaders and celebrities are demanding that world leaders double aid to Africa and cancel all national debts for the poorest countries. The effect is that a coalition of the glamorous and the pious, including such figures as the conservative evangelical Rick Warren, the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, the Dalai Lama, U2's Bono, and the former Beatle Paul McCartney, are turning the pressure on world leaders gathering in Gleneagles, Scotland--for decisions that will make good on their earlier pledges to permanently end hunger in Africa.

Underscoring the significance of the rock stars' involvement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared Wednesday with Geldof and Bono and pledged to oppose reported U.S.-backed attempts to scale back the G8's Africa aid. The rock and religion coalition may have scored at least one victory this month, when the wealthy nation' foreign ministers agreed to erase more than $40 billion of the debt that 18 countries owe to the World Bank and other international organizations. But they see that decision as only the beginning of what's needed to pull Africa out of its seemingly perennial poverty-and a fraction of what is realistically achievable by the developed world.

"More and more people are beginning to realize that with technology and other advances, this can be the generation that ends extreme poverty," said Scott Jackson of World Vision, a relief organization associated with evangelical churches.

Even before Live 8 heated up the G8 activism, efforts to combat hunger in Africa had been picking up steam in recent weeks.

In May, U2's Bono helped launch the ONE Campaign, which is calling on the U.S. government to raise by 1 percent the amount of aid to Africa.

The effort-supported by a diverse array of faith groups-is the U.S. arm of an England-based organization called Make Poverty History. That group similarly advocates for increased aid to Africa and is asking supporters to wear white wristbands, styled after the yellow ones that Lance Armstrong popularized to promote the fight against cancer.

Catholics for Faithful Citizenship, an Ohio-based advocacy group that lobbies for, among other things, trade agreements favorable to poorer countries, quotes the late Pope John Paul II as saying the poverty of billions of people worldwide is "the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian consciences."

In June, more than 1,000 representatives of more than 40 religious groups - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus-gathered in the National Cathedral in Washington to pray for an end to global poverty. "There's a moral convergence happening among religious leaders on the issue of poverty," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, author and founder of the organization Sojourners, a Christian group advocating peace and justice. Another of Mr. Wallis' faith-based groups, Call to Renewal, co-sponsored the interfaith gathering at the National Cathedral. Diversity is nothing new in anti-poverty work. What's different now, according to many, is the strong passion that many evangelicals are investing on issues like poverty, hunger, and AIDSlong considered priorities mainly for liberals.

How are evangelicals working to end poverty?
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  • In recent weeks, several prominent evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham and Rick Warren, have been urging their followers to enlist in the war on poverty.

    "I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God's love for the world," Dr. Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life,"wrote in an open letter to President Bush, whom he described as his "co-worker in Christ."

    Religious liberals and conservatives have occasionally worked together over the past decade or so, for example, successfully pressing for U.S. involvement in ending the Sudanese civil war, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

    He said he thought that on the subject of world poverty, the alliance would be deeper and longer-lasting.

    "It goes to such a core religious issue," he said. "All Abrahamic faiths and most religions have as a core value caring for the poor.

    "I suspect that we're seeing something that will have a lasting impact."

    Add the star power of Live 8, and poverty is suddenly getting the sort of attention it hasn't received in years.

    "It's unfortunate that it takes celebrity involvement for people to care. But if it brings attention to these issues, it benefits us and benefits the people in need," said Arif Shaikh, a spokesman for Islamic Relief. The international charity was founded in England in response to the African famine of the mid-1980s-the same famine that led to the original Live Aid.

    Beyond star appeal, activists cite several reasons for the renewed emphasis on poverty among people of faith and the American public at large.

    The Sept. 11 attacks led many people to focus on the United States' relationship to the rest of the world. The outpouring of support and concern after the Asian tsunami again led people to think about global poverty. And coverage of the ethnic slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan has drawn sympathetic attention to Africa's problems.

    The issue has also been propelled by President Bush's pronouncements early in his presidency committing to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa-and what many see as the administration's failure to make good on those commitments, said John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, a Christian relief group affiliated with the liberal National Council of Churches.

    "The United States has historically underserved its neighbors on that continent," Mr. McCullough said. "The capacity of the United States to use its resources to address hunger and poverty throughout the world is enormous."

    As just one example of the possibilities, said Arif Shaikh of Islamic Relief, if all currently-unused land in Sudan alone were cultivated, it could feed all of Africa.

    "The biggest challenge is letting people know a lot of these problems are fixable," he said. "There's no reason for people to be starving."

    What's most needed, many say, is the political will.

    Politicians often say poverty doesn't resonate with the public as an important issue, Mr. Wallis said. He disagrees.

    He cites a November 2004 Zogby poll in which Americans were asked to identify the most urgent moral crisis facing the country. More cited "greed and materialism" and "poverty and economic justice" than abortion or gay marriage.

    "We have to demonstrate that there's a movement afoot," he said. Politicians, he added, will "pay attention when they see that movement."

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