An international Church-backed campaign to write off unpayable Third World debts in the year 2000 is planning to confront the political leaders of the world's richest countries with a "vast human chain" when they arrive in Birmingham, England, for their annual meeting next year in May.
Supporters of the campaign are expected to arrive in Birmingham by almost every form of transport imaginable, including balloons and parachutes.
Organisers of the campaign, Jubilee 2000, say that the chain surrounding the gathering of leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) of the world's leading industrialised countries, will not be broken "until the G7 have acknowledged our message, and accepted hundreds of thousands of our petitions".
Jubilee 2000, which was launched in Britain in 1996 and is supported by all of Britain's mainstream Churches and sections of the Jewish community, is at the centre of a world-wide network that seeks the cancellation of unpayable debt of the poorest countries on a case-by-case basis to mark the Millennium Jubilee. Jubilee 2000 estimates that unpayable debt is at least US$100 billion, although the Roman Catholic development organisation, CAFOD, has put the figure at US$250 billion.
Since its British launch, Jubilee 2000 campaigns have also been launched in many other countries, including Ireland, Austria, Germany, Ghana and Kenya.
The inspiration for the Jubilee campaign comes from the Bible, where according to the Old Testament (Leviticus 25), the people of Israel should hold a "jubilee" every 50 years, when land would be restored to its original owners and slaves set free.
To publicise its goals, Jubilee 2000 is collecting signatures for what it hopes will be the world's biggest petition - it aims to collect more than 21 million signatures.
The petition refers to "mistakes made by both lenders and borrowers". It asks leaders of the lending nations to cancel the backlog of unpayable debts for the most impoverished countries, and also "to prevent such high levels of debt building up again".
Jubilee 2000's director, Ann Pettifor, who attended the recent meeting in Hong Kong of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, told ENI that Jubilee 2000 was "working closely" with these two institutions, although both organisations are seen by some observers as being at the root of the debt crisis affecting a billion people.
"Those who fear dialogue with the IMF and World Bank haven't got confidence in their own arguments," Ann Pettifor said. The fruit of dialogue with the lending institutions, she said, was that the debt campaign was beginning to be treated in earnest, although she pointed out that there were still differences between Jubilee 2000 and these institutions: "We differ from them on the amount, timing and conditions of debt," she said. "We believe in writing off debt. They want to keep the economic clamps in. We say one can't impose conditions."
She welcomed a recent decision by the central committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to join the call for the cancellation of the poorest countries' debt by 2000. The WCC is drawing up an action plan and a statement for adoption at its eighth assembly in December next year in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. Ms Pettifor said she was excited about having an organisation with 330 member Churches working for the same goal.
"We are a bottom-up movement," she said. "Churches come together around the idea of writing off debt by the year 2000. In countries where we do not yet have a coalition, the WCC can make a real difference for us."