During his remarks, Clinton called alleviating the financial struggles of Third World countries--a stance that has gained widespread support this year from the religious community--``a moral issue.''
``I think that it is very much in the interest of America to have big, large-scale debt relief if the countries that get the relief are committed to and held accountable to good governance and using the money not to build up military power but to invest in the human needs of their people,'' the president said.
The wealth of America should propel its citizens to want to help others, Clinton told the gathering that included representatives of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, Hindu and Sikh communities.
``I do not believe that a nation, anymore than a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a particular religious faith, can confine its compassion and concern and commitment only within its borders, especially if you happen to be in the most fortunate country in the world,'' Clinton said.
``I think it is a moral issue,'' Clinton added. ``How can we sit here on the biggest mountain of wealth we have ever accumulated, that any nation in all of human history has ever accumulated, and not'' share that wealth? he continued.
While Congress has supported forgiving bilateral debts--owed to the United States from poor countries--Clinton said it still needs to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative that would forgive multilateral debts due to organizations like the International Monetary Fund.
Rich nations' response to international debt was a theme of protests during last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and at this year's International Monetary Fund and World Bank gathering in Washington.
Clinton noted such dissent and said he ``doesn't buy it.''
About 120 people packed the State Dining Room to hear the remarks from Clinton, who also called on religious leaders' support for relieving health and education crises in nations across the globe.
The president urged them to help him increase efforts to assist countries fighting AIDS and drug research companies developing vaccines for malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis, which he said are responsible for a quarter of the world's deaths each year. He proposed increasing by $100 million the money spent by the United States on AIDS efforts and instituting a billion-dollar tax credit for companies developing vaccines.
``It ought to be an American obligation,'' he said. ``This is a serious global problem.
Clinton also spoke of the need ``to do more to universalize education so that everybody everywhere will be able to take advantage of what we're coming to take for granted.''
As they dined on doughnut-shaped peaches and frittata with tomatoes, the spiritual leaders took part in an almost two-hour discussion with the president.
Afterward, several in attendance praised Clinton for his encouragement of international debt relief.
Religious leaders, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., said U.S. decisions on debt relief will influence other countries' decisions.
``If the United States fails to exercise leadership by providing this extremely small portion of our budget for debt relief, other creditors are possibly going to back out,'' said McCarrick, a member of the board of Catholic Relief Services.
``We strongly urge Congress and the administration to work together in these next few weeks to achieve full funding for debt relief.''
Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts said relieving the debts of poor countries is fiscally and morally prudent.
Sister Christine Vladimiroff, chair of the board for Bread for the World, a Christian organization that works against hunger, agreed.
``Poor country debt keeps children from getting the food and education they need,'' she said. ``Debt relief is hunger relief. Debt relief is medical care for children.''
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said debt relief is the latest of important topics discussed at the breakfast, held annually during Clinton's administration.
``This is an institution that President Clinton has helped regularize,'' he said. ``This has been a remarkable set of conversations.''
While previous presidents held ad hoc prayer breakfasts that aimed to bring religious leaders together, Clinton took the concept further by holding lengthy dialogues, Saperstein said.
``It's a substantive discussion about religious issues or how religious values should affect American policy,'' he said.
The past two years, Clinton has used the religious leaders' forum to apologize for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, to which he apparently made an oblique reference Thursday.
He greeted the crowd on behalf of his wife, New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, ``who called me early this morning to ask what I was going to say.'' He also sent tidings from Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee for president, and Gore's wife, Tipper.
``As you know, the three of them are otherwise occupied, but they need your prayers maybe even more than I do,'' Clinton said to laughter.