Christians in the Middle East are being put at unprecedented risk by the England's “shortsighted” and “ignorant” policy in Iraq, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, says today.

In an extraordinary attack, Dr. Williams accuses Tony Blair and the U.S. of endangering the lives and futures of many thousands of Christians in the Middle East, who are regarded by their countrymen as supporters of the “crusading West.”

He has been backed by bishops across the Church of England, who say that Christians in the Middle East are now paying the price for the “chaos” in Iraq after the British government failed to heed their warnings about the consequences of military action.

Dr. Williams, writing in today’s Times, says that one prediction that was systematically ignored was that Western military action would put the whole of the Middle East’s Christian population at risk.

Writing from Bethlehem, where the number of Christians has plummeted to a quarter of what they were, he condemns the government for failing to put in place a strategy to help Christians.

“The results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region,” he says. “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.” In some Middle Eastern countries where Muslim-Christian relations have always been good, he says that extremist attacks on Christians are becoming “notably more frequent.”

Dr Williams, who is visiting Israel with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, the Armenian Primate of Britain and David Coffey, the head of the Baptist World Alliance, returns to Britain today with a call for all British churches to take action to raise the profile of Christians in the Middle East. Dr Williams said yesterday that the Israeli-built wall around Bethlehem symbolised what was “deeply wrong in the human heart”.

Despite Dr. Williams’s attack on British policy in Iraq, the government insists that the strategy in southern Iraq, where about 7,000 troops are based, is bearing fruit.

Des Browne, the Defense Secretary, told The Times in an interview this week: “There is no evidence that the strategy is not still on course.” He said that Operation Sinbad, under which troops and reconstruction teams are devoting resources to improving Basra, was the key to Britain’s strategy.

The Government hopes that next year British troops will be able to adopt a “watching role”, leaving the trained Iraqi security forces to take over responsibility for Basra. “I think it’s highly unlikely that we will need the same number of troops to watch over the Iraqis as we have there at present,” Mr. Browne said.

He insisted that the environment in Basra was “genuinely improving”. In October, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, gave warning in a newspaper interview that if the British troops stayed for too long they would risk exacerbating the situation.

Senior bishops threw their weight behind Dr. Williams. Dr. Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said: “Nobody takes any notice of what churchmen say about these things. Now this has turned into a very sorrowful ‘I told you so’.”

Dr Wright, who is one of the Church’s top five clerics, said: “We have argued all along that what was being done in our name by our government, led by America, would have disastrous consequences.

“The 64-and-a-half thousand dollar question is, what do we do now? We have made a problematic situation far worse. Even if there were changes of government in America and Britain, they will still have to cope with the chaos that has been unleashed.”

He called for the U.N. resources in the region to be strengthened. “Long term, that is what we must do because it is ridiculous for any one, two or three countries to pretend they can be global policemen in other people’s parts of the world. We desperately need a credible international police force.”

“As long as it is America and Britain doing the policing, local people will see it as Christian nations coming in and beating up Muslim nations, so it merely makes matters worse.” He said that the ensuing chaos could lead to a situation that was “worse than Saddam”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Rev John Gladwin, said: “I am fully aware of the appalling situation in which many Christians in the Middle East now find themselves and would wish to give my whole-hearted support to the Archbishop.”

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, said: “The Archbishop has done much to deepen friendship between Christians, Muslims and Jews in this country. We must pray that this friendship spreads.

“We face two further possibilities: either a conflict of attrition between the faiths or a settlement of peaceful coexistence. We must hope that Christians will find the same just treatment in the Middle East as Muslims have a right to expect in this country.”