LONDON (Reuters) - The spiritual head of the Anglican Church launched an outspoken attack on the British and U.S. governments on Saturday, saying their "ignorant" policy in Iraq has put Christians in the region at risk.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, said Christians were being attacked and forced to flee the Middle East because their countrymen saw them as supporters of a "crusading West".
"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 wrote in an article for the London Times newspaper.
Williams, who is not shy of controversy, has long been a critic of the Iraq war, saying there was no moral basis for military intervention.
He said the consequences of Anglo-American foreign policy have been the erosion of good relations between the Muslim and Christian communities and made Christians an increasing target for Muslim extremists.
"One warning often made and systematically ignored in the hectic days before the Iraq War was that Western military action ... would put Christians in the whole Middle East at risk," wrote Williams.
"The results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region."
Williams, who is currently visiting Israel with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said thousands of Christians were fleeing Iraq every few months while some priests had been murdered.
Only a tiny remnant of the Orthodox Christian population remained in Turkey while attacks on Christians in Egypt were becoming more frequent, he added.
The British Foreign Office hit back saying it disagreed with the Archbishop's analysis.
"We would argue that it's intolerant extremists who are inflicting pain and suffering on the people of the Middle East, not our policies in Iraq or anywhere else," a spokesman said.
He said extremists indiscriminately killed Muslims as well as Christians showing it was an issue for all religions.
The only way to improve the situation for Christians and all the people of Iraq was to work with the country's elected government "to help build a society in which all faiths and all views are tolerated and respected", the spokesman said.