LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Several Catholic leaders have joined an interfaith call for the British government to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest 77 countries.

The call was made in a July 10 letter to the UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The signatories asked him to urge other G20 countries and the World Bank to also cancel the debt.

“This is a critical and rapid means of ensuring that health workers in developing countries have the best chance of helping to defeat the coronavirus and that countries have the resources at hand to build back from the economic devastation the pandemic has wreaked – including by assisting communities already being hit by the effects of the climate crisis,” the letter states.

“The immediate risks the coronavirus poses to poverty reduction efforts are both clear and shocking. In total, the World Bank estimates that between 71-100 million people risk falling into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. The World Food Program forecasts that around 270 million people around the world will face acute food insecurity by the end of this year, a doubling of the approximately 130 million who suffered severe food shortages last year. The International Labor Organization predicts that up to 340 million jobs could be lost,” it continues.

The letter said to insist on debt repayment in the face of the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic “would be an affront to the faith traditions” of the signatories, that included representatives of different Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faith groups.

The signatories included four Catholic bishops: Bishop John Arnold of Salford, Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell, and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway. Other Catholic representatives included Father Damian Howard, the provincial of the Jesuits in Britain; Christine Allen, the director of CAFOD, the international development and aid agency of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, and Alistair Dutton, the director of SCIAF, the international development and aid agency of the Scottish bishops.

The British government helped to lead efforts at the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in April to reach an agreement for the temporary suspension of debts owed to other governments by those of the world’s poorest 77 countries.

“We now ask you to work with your fellow finance ministers at this month’s G20 meeting to cancel, rather than merely suspend bilateral debt payments, as well as to urge the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and private creditors to cancel debt payments owed in 2020 and 2021 by these countries,” the religious leaders write.

“These are not normal times and we must respond accordingly. This crisis has emphasized the need to stand together and debt cancellation represents an urgent and essential means of assisting the most vulnerable communities to withstand the suffering the pandemic will otherwise unnecessarily cause,” the letter continues.

The letter noted that in his Easter Urbi et Orbi message, Pope Francis called for the reduction of the debt that is “burdening the balance sheet of the poorest nations” and said earlier this year that it is not right “to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples.”

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