Fighting Global Poverty with Faith at White House, State Dept.

WASHINGTON - Prominent religious leaders met with President George Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday in Washington, encouraging them to take bold steps on agricultural trade equity and commitment to aid, less than two weeks ahead of the “Doha Round” meeting of the World Trade Organization.

The President and Secretary were encouraged to be bold domestically and abroad to eliminate “trade-distorting” agricultural subsidies which the religious leaders said harm rural farmers in the U.S. and farmers abroad in developing nations.

The second matter pressed was a proposed $5 billion increase in development aid for the 2007 fiscal year to help poor nations.

“The fight against poverty around the world is vital to establishing solidarity among peoples and nations," said Catholic Archbishop of Washington Theodore E. McCarrick after a private meeting with the president at the White House.

"Global trade rules, when framed from the perspective of the 'least among us,' can lead to more equitable prosperity and stability in a world where growing inequality and instability are very often dangerous realities," he added.

McCarrick later joined other religious leaders at the State Department to meet with the Secretary of State.

The WTO trade discussions that will take place in Hong Kong are part of a round of trade talks that began in 2001 in the city of Doha, Qatar. They were meant to help eliminate a great deal of poverty around the world by giving farmers better access to developed nations and markets.

Religious leaders who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department in the afternoon held a press conference at the building entrance. Several of the leaders said they were approaching the fair trade and poverty issues from a spiritual perspective.

"For us at the heart this is a religious and spiritual issue. We shared that with the secretary. We were delighted to hear her concerns as well and encouraged her to be bold," said the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said it was a moral issue, and focused on people in America.

“As the wealthiest nation in the world we have a moral responsibility to use the wealth and leadership that comes to us for the sake of those who live in poverty,” he said.

In total, 13 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders met with Secretary Rice on Thursday afternoon. After the meeting the religious leaders continued to exhort them before the press to push strongly for the issues.

The leaders were impressed by the scope of changes that the president had been putting forward on agriculture reform here in the United States to eliminate subsidies that penalize rural farmers and those in developing countries. Taking that as an example, some also looked into mobilizing people to action within their own spheres of influence.

“The administration has put a strong proposal on the table in the Doha negotiations,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World. “We hope President Bush and other world leaders will go the extra mile to achieve a breakthrough this month.”

On the issue of aid, McCarrick spoke about the benefits of aid and debt relief and how they improved the prospects for fairer trade.

“Poor countries need the support of more generous foreign aid and broader debt relief so that they can invest in education and health care for their people and in building their capacity for trade,” he said.

Dr. H. Eric Shockman, President of MAZON – a Jewish Response to Hunger – pointed out several shared traits among all the leaders gathered including a commitment to global justice, the recognition that what were once obscure issues such as debt and trade relief were starting to resonate in congregations of different faiths. He urged that those people of faith take their scriptures and used them for social action.

“Without social action ... we are nothing. We are not living our faith,” he said. “I think that ultimately brings us back in a united common effort where my colleague quotes Luke and I quote Isaiah and we’ll come to the same conclusion.”

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Secretary General for the Islamic Society of North America said the grouping of religious leaders was a “historical gathering.”

“We are instrumental in mobilizing the world’s resources, our resources to fight this big challenge. The challenge of poverty. The challenge of hunger. And the challenge of deprivation."