An "apocalypse" forged by the Islamic State has left Christianity facing "elimination" in the very region where the faith was born two millennia ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned today.
The Most Reverend Justin Welby used his Christmas Day sermon to brand the Islamic extremists "a Herod of today" - a reference to the Biblical despotic king of Judea at the time of Jesus's birth.
In the service at Canterbury Cathedral he said that IS is "igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression".
He told the congregation: "Confident that these are the last days, using force and indescribable cruelty, they (IS) seem to welcome all opposition, certain that the warfare unleashed confirms that these are indeed the end times.
"They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began.
"This apocalypse is defined by themselves and heralded only by the angel of death."
The Archbishop, the head of the global Anglican communion, added: "To all who have been or are being dehumanised by the tyranny and cruelty of a Herod or an Isis, a Herod of today, God's judgment comes as good news, because it promises justice."
He received support from the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who said in his own message for the festive season that faiths must unite in the face of attacks on their freedom to worship.
He attacked "aggressive secularism that threatens to relegate spirituality and sanctity within our society" as well as the "shameful scourge of hatred and oppression, which remains the most pressing global challenge of our time".
Rabbi Mirvis said: "It has been reported that persecution of Christians persists in over a hundred countries, more than for any other religion. Faith communities have a responsibility to stand together to oppose discrimination and attacks on freedom of religious expression wherever they are to be found.
"Most recently, the shocking ban on public celebrations of Christmas in Brunei is reflective of an intolerance that as Jews, we simply cannot countenance."
In his Christmas message the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales urges the faithful to shun all violence, especially in the family circle.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said that the coming of Jesus brings a testing of people's hearts.
The first is that in Jesus is seen the face of God's mercy, offered to every person so they might know forgiveness and be raised up for a new start.
"So the first test we face is whether we, in our turn, are willing to extend mercy to those around us. To see, or even glimpse, the face of Jesus in the crib is to glimpse the length to which God will go to impart to our hearts His blessing of mercy. What we receive we must also give.
"Secondly, this means that, in a life shaped by faith in God, there is absolutely no room at all for gratuitous violence. Is there any space for violence in the Christmas crib? No!
"So the second test comes into focus. Living by faith calls us to overcome all temptations to violent speech or aggressive actions. This has to begin in our family circle. Lessons learned at a young age are rarely forgotten.
"It is therefore clear that any claim that faith in God supports or justifies such violence is abhorrent. It is a corruption of true faith.
"As we celebrate this Christmas let us be resolved to lay aside our own tendencies to angry violence so that we may condemn, with integrity, those who perpetrate such violence and claim for it the name of God.
"The birth of Jesus proclaims the message and the power of unarmed goodness."
Meanwhile Pope Francis used his homily on Christmas Eve to urge Catholics to shun "consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance" in favour of sobriety.
The pontiff addressed 10,000 followers in St Peter's Basilica amid tight security, telling them their lifestyles should be "devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy".