(photo credit: George Conger)
Western policies in Iraq are endangering the lives of Christians living in the Middle East, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a scathing commentary Saturday that derided British policies in the war-torn Arab country.
Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader who is on a four-day trip to the Holy Land along with other British church leaders, wrote in The Times's Saturday edition that factors such as the war in Iraq, mistrust from surrounding communities and security measures have combined to put extreme pressure on Christians in the volatile region, Britain's Press Association reported.
Writing from Bethlehem, where he said the Christian population has decline dramatically, Williams said "there are some disturbing signs of Muslim anti-Christian feeling, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence.
"But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the 'security fence' that almost chokes the shrinking town - the dramatic poverty, soaring unemployment and sheer practical hardship of traveling to school, work or hospital," he said.
Williams lambasted the British government for failing to put into place a strategy to help Christians, and argued as a result of this failure, "the results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region."
"This Christmas, pray for the little town of Bethlehem, and spare a thought for those who have been put at risk by our short-sightedness and ignorance," Williams said.
He said the deteriorating conditions have prompted Christians in countries including Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories to migrate from their homelands.
"Iraq's own Christian population is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of its most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate," Rowan said. "In Istanbul, the Orthodox population is a tiny remnant, and their Patriarch is told by some of the Turkish press that it's time he left."
"The first Christian believers were Middle Easterners. It's a very sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region," he said.
As the Christian population migrates, "it all fuels the myth in the East and West - that Islam can't live with other faiths and that the East-West collision is an irreconcilable clash of faiths and cultures."
Williams, who earlier in his trip had criticized Israel's barrier surrounding Bethlehem symbolized what was "deeply wrong in the human heart," said it was imperative to directly confront the problems of Christians in the Middle East and to reach out to a community he lamented had been largely misunderstood in the West.
"We need to confront it, not by weighing in with firepower, but by making real relationships with the communities there are working at trustful contacts with those Muslims who understand their own history and want to live in a lively, varied culture."
Williams is scheduled to return to Britain on Saturday.