LONDON // The treatment of Egyptian Copts and other Christians in North Africa and the Middle East would be the "litmus test" that determines the success or failure of the Arab Spring, the head of the worldwide Anglican church says.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned that Christians in the Middle East were "more vulnerable than they had been for centuries".
Speaking in a debate on the consequences of the Arab Spring in the House of Lord in London, Archbishop Williams said that the eventual outcome could be that Christians in the region had to either emigrate or retreat into their own enclaves.
"Many recognise with heavy hearts things may come to such a pass that there are few if any other options that will actually guarantee the safety of Christians there," he said. "But they still feel, surely rightly, that the creation of enclaves would be the yielding of a vitally important principle".
Pointing to the unprecedented levels of emigration among Egyptian Copts, he said: "In a way, that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago (but) they are anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in their setting.
"No one is seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say, and I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely, is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East."
Lord (David) Howell, a Foreign Office minister, told the peers in the debate on Friday afternoon that the UK government would do "everything possible" to help fledgling regimes in North Africa and the Middle East in their efforts to embrace democracy and preserve Christians' rights amid political turmoil.
"Christianity comes from the Middle East," he said. "We are talking about the cradle of Christianity - we are not talking about some outside group pushed in from the West to bring the Christian religion. There it sprang up and developed in all its depths.
"As countries embrace reforms and democracy to varying degrees and in varied paces and ways in the process of the Arab Spring, it is absolutely crucial that religious diversity in the Middle East is respected."
Prof Lord (Bhikhu) Parekh, an author of a landmark report on multiculturalism in Britain, said it was essential to speak out in defence of all minorities in the region, not just Christians.
In Iraq, he said, the "misjudged invasion" had led to the "distressing reduction" of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Lord (George) Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, also warned: "The landscape of the Middle East is at grave risk of losing a vibrant, Christian presence that has been a vital part of its history and culture. The region will be hugely poorer for that loss."