Religious leaders from various faith groups met Dec. 1 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss poverty concerns before she participates in the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong in mid-December.

The delegation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders urged the United States to push for an end to farm subsidies they say distort trade and hurt poor farmers in rural America and developing countries.

They also called for expanded market access for poor-country products, freedom for poor countries to determine how they liberalize their economies and increased assistance to help poor countries develop their capacity to participate in trade, according to Bread for the World.

“Trade and aid are both important,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, “Aid can help poor countries participate in trade, and changes in trade policy can open opportunities for struggling people around the world to earn a decent living.”

Beckmann organized the meeting at the State Department, which was closed to press coverage.  He said the group emphasized that all faiths represented by the participants see trade negotiations as a justice issue.

“It’s not a matter of handing people assistance, but of removing obstacles” in the global marketplace to allow people to better provide for themselves, Beckmann, a Lutheran, said at a press conference.

Other participants included leaders of the Islamic Society of North America, a Jewish anti-hunger group and Christian faiths including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church and the United Church of Jesus Christ, Apostolic.

Also among the 13 religious leaders in the meeting was Daniel Vestal, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“I believe that Baptist Christians care for poor people,” Vestal said in a CBF news release. “In their hearts they care about open trade for poor countries as well as increasing aid for poor people. It was encouraging to sense the same concern in Secretary Rice.”

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick met with President Bush at the White House before joining the interfaith delegation meeting with Rice at the State Department, according to Catholic News Service. In a half-hour meeting that ran about twice as long as scheduled, McCarrick said he encouraged the president to protect the interests of the poor, who have too little access to the negotiating table.

“President Bush has proposed major changes in the U.S. agricultural policies that are important for establishing a more just global trading system,” McCarrick said, calling it “a courageous and necessary step in the right direction.”

The WTO trade discussions will take place Dec. 13-18 in Hong Kong. They are part of a round of trade talks that began in 2001 in the city of Doha, Qatar, aimed at eliminating much poverty around the world by giving farmers better access to developed nations and markets.

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

The religious leaders also lobbied for a proposed $5 billion increase in development aid for the 2007 fiscal year to help poor nations.

President Bush promised to increase foreign aid in 2002, but Beckmann said those promises have fallen short. The U.S. currently spends less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget on poverty.

Vestal encouraged CBF churches not only to minister to the poor, but also to become strong advocates for social justice.

“Being the presence of Christ means we are advocates among government and business leaders locally, nationally and globally,” he said. “We must use our influence to shape policies and practices that promote peace and justice.”

Bread for the World each year sponsors an Offering of Letters, where people of faith are asked to write Congress in support of hunger-fighting legislation.

Next year’s theme is the One Spirit Campaign, which among other things calls on the U.S. to keep promises made in 2002 to increase foreign aid.

“The administration needs to be doing more on Capitol Hill to fight for its promises to reduce global poverty,” Beckmann said.

The One Spirit Campaign serves as part of the larger effort of the ONE campaign, rallying Americans against global AIDS and global poverty.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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