The leaders of the UK's Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have cast doubt on the moral case for launching military action against Iraq.
The archbishops recognise burden for decision-makers
In a joint statement, they say war inevitably brings "a sense of failure", and call for United Nations weapons inspections to be given more time.
They urge the Iraqi Government to show its total compliance with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction.
But the statement - signed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, and by his Anglican counterpart, Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury - also says the moral alternative to military measures is not inaction.
Only last weekend, hours before hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against a possible attack on Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair argued what he called "the moral case" for confronting President Saddam Hussein with force.
"Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane," Mr Blair said on Saturday.
But the archbishops say: "The events of recent days show that doubts still persist about the moral legitimacy, as well as the unpredictable humanitarian and political consequences, of a war with Iraq."
They go on, however, to recognise the "huge burden of responsibility" carried by decision-makers.
Accepting Saddam Hussein
The country's two most senior archbishops say "inaction, passivity, appeasement or indifference" cannot be embraced and instead urge for all sides to give UN weapons inspectors more time.
They say: "It is vital therefore that all sides in this crisis engage, through the United Nations - fully and urgently - in a process, including continued weapons inspections, that could and should render the trauma and tragedy of war unnecessary."
Recent events 'show doubts persist about moralilty of war against Iraq'
Significantly, though, they appear to distance themselves from calls for a change of regime in Iraq, calling instead for a more focussed response from Baghdad.
They say: "We strongly urge the government of Iraq to demonstrate forthwith its unequivocal compliance with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction."
Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell told Sky News he thought the Archbishops had given a "balanced statement."
Mr Rammell said: "Much of what they are saying is in line with government policy.
"The real moral dilemma that we are facing - archbishops as much as government ministers - is, given that we have been seeking to persuade Iraq for the 12 years, what do we do if they continue to thwart the agreed position of the UN?"
It is fairly unusual for the two archbishops to issue joint statements: they decided to do so after a routine private meeting a few days ago.
In a letter to Tony Blair, delivered to Downing Street on Thursday morning, the charity Christian Aid echoed concerns about the justification for war with Iraq.
"As the official development and relief agency of 40 British and Irish member churches, we do not believe there is yet a 'moral case' for war," wrote Director Dr Daleep Mukarji.
The charity fears there will be "significant chaos and suffering in Iraq long after military strikes have ended".
The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend Richard Harries, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the moral case for war had not been made.
He said: "This joint statement (by the church leaders) is a very good one and represents the opinion of the vast majority of leaders in both churches."
Dr Williams, who is to be enthroned on 27 February, has made clear his opposition to any war on Iraq, but the cardinal has not declared himself.
One church observer told BBC News Online: "They've cleverly said a lot of very important things without actually backing anyone into a corner."
But the archbishops' emphasis on the UN's role, their recognition of the doubts over war's moral legitimacy, and their refusal to call for Saddam's overthrow suggest they wish to be understood as saying no war should be fought.
Our experience ... teaches us that it is likely there will be significant chaos and suffering in Iraq long after military strikes have ended
Dr Daleep Mukarji, Christian Aid
Their statement comes the day after British citizens were advised by the Foreign Office to leave Iraq immediately because of the stand-off with Saddam.