A priority for US churches: Africa's poor

They don't always see eye to eye. But US religious leaders across the theological and political spectrums have found a common cause: ending global poverty and hunger, particularly in Africa.

Their rallying point is the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Scotland next week, at which British Prime Minister Tony Blair will make African poverty a priority. Their aim is to get President Bush and Congress to boost American leadership and financial commitment to the task.

"For the first time in history we have the knowledge, resources, information, and technology to end extreme poverty," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, director of Sojourners, a Christian ministry. "And there is a moral, spiritual, and political convergence on this issue."

More than a dozen leaders from Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic churches and faith-based humanitarian groups took their case to the White House on Monday. They asked the administration to press Congress to deliver on the African aid the president has already promised, and to add $2 billion more to the budget annually.

After a press conference, the delegation flew to London for sessions with British officials and religious leaders.

Many of the churches and faith-based groups have long been involved in Africa, and say Africans' political and anticorruption reforms have made the convergence of support feasible.

They are encouraging people in the pews to contact Congress to support the US share of the UN Millennium Development Goals, which call for cutting poverty in half by 2015.

The participation of Evangelicals - often criticized, even by some of their own, for ignoring issues of economic and social justice - adds significant political clout.

"The moment to do something about global poverty is now ... and we want to see the Bush administration turn a good record into a great record," says Richard Cizik, vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. Last fall, the NAE broadened its agenda to include poverty and the environment, despite some criticism from the religious right.

The most influential Evangelicals have jumped on board. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," joined with Billy Graham to urge thousands on his e-mail list to enlist in the global campaign to "Make Poverty History."

He asked supporters to sign a letter to Mr. Bush that asks that 1 percent more of the US budget be put toward fighting poverty, AIDS, and hunger; that 100 percent of the poorest countries' debts be cancelled; and that trade rules be reformed.

With some 210,000 children dying needlessly each week, and US aid making up the smallest percentage of GDP of any industrialized nation, the religious leaders say Americans are ready to do more. Millions will tune into the Live8 concerts this weekend, but they want the US in it for the long haul.

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