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Christians in danger - Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken of his fears for Christian communities in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab spring.

Dr Rowan Williams said the departure of autocratic regimes in countries like Egypt had left a "vacuum" which was being filled by violent extremists who were turning on the Christian minorities.

He said the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt had been the victims of a series of "atrocities", in Syria the pressure was building while in northern Iraq, Christians were facing a form of "ethnic cleansing".

Even in Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace in the occupied West Bank, the Christians who had once been in the majority had been reduced to a "marginalised minority", he said.

In Egypt, the Archbishop said that much of the violence appeared to be the work of outside elements from countries such as Saudi Arabia and northern Sudan, where there is a tradition of support for al Qaida.

"There is no doubt at all that it is a a very anxious time for Christian communities. There have been extremist atrocities already, especially in Egypt," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"It is a fairly consistent pattern over a number of months. Although at leadership level in the Muslim community in Egypt there is clear condemnation of this, it's evident that there are other forces at work which of course may not be native Egyptian."

He said that the situation in northern Iraq was even worse, with life becoming "unsustainable" for many Christians - a situation which he said justified the description "ethnic cleansing".

"The level of violence has been extreme," he said.

"More and more there is the talk of an 'enclave solution' to the problem in Iraq - that is a sort of safe territory for Christians, which Christians and their leaders don't particularly want, but many would think is the only practical outcome now."

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