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Churches Join to Urge Aid to Africa

Evangelicals unite with liberal and moderate religious groups to press President Bush to increase spending on development efforts.

June 28, 2005|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In an uncommon display of political unity, leaders of the U.S. evangelical movement joined with moderate and liberal religious groups Monday to urge President Bush to boost development aid to Africa.

Evangelical leaders said they hoped their participation would increase pressure on the president to announce a significant increase in U.S. aid before or during next week's summit of the world's wealthiest nations in Gleneagles, Scotland.

"We would like to see the Bush administration turn a good record on Africa into a great record on Africa," Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, told reporters. "We are lending our voice to this cause in a way never before done."

"Anybody who follows religion and has for some time would be pretty impressed and amazed," said Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners, a liberal-leaning Christian ministry based in Washington. "There is complete unity on this question across a spectrum that's been divided, and still is, on many other issues."

Other participants in the effort include Evangelicals for Social Action, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, Bread for the World, and World Vision U.S.

Although Bush has increased development aid to Africa to about $3 billion a year and has proposed further increases, the groups are urging him to make additional commitments of $2 billion to $3 billion a year.

Bush is also under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, host of the summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations that begins July 6. Blair is pushing an initiative that would obligate G-8 nations to double international development aid to Africa to about $50 billion a year by 2010.

Bush has expressed skepticism about the approach advocated by Blair and some other G-8 leaders. But he is expected to announce some kind of additional aid -- possibly a smaller initiative aimed at a specific problem, such as malaria -- in a pre-summit speech Thursday.

Senior White House officials agreed that there was a new receptiveness on the part of wealthy nations to address Africa's endemic poverty. They warned, however, that the Gleneagles summit should not be viewed as a pledging conference.

"I worry that expectations are a little out of kilter," said one of the officials, who briefed reporters but requested anonymity. "The G-8 is capable of a lot in terms of laying out a common vision, but I wouldn't look to it as being a fundraising exercise."

Still, the religious leaders said their show of solidarity could resonate with a president who has described the transformative role of religion in his own life and who regards evangelical Christians as an essential part of his political base.

"Liberals may snicker, but it's possible, I think, to argue plausibly that the evangelicals are now shaping a national purpose and a public interest behind this cause," Cizik said.

John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a Washington think tank, said evangelicals had aligned themselves with moderates and liberals on issues such as religious persecution and HIV/AIDS funding. He said their involvement might affect political calculations on Africa aid.

"People in the White House may very well pay more attention because of the role the evangelicals play in the Republican Party," Green said.

Cizik, Wallis and about a dozen other religious leaders met privately later Monday with two senior White House officials. They reported afterward that the administration seemed receptive to increasing U.S. efforts to eradicate poverty in Africa but made no specific new commitments.

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