LONDON (Reuters) - Leading Christian clergy in Britain, including the head of the Church of England, attacked welfare cuts by the Conservative-led government on Thursday, putting them at odds with Prime Minister David Cameron.
As Britain struggles to reduce its large budget deficit, the government has embarked on a radical shake-up of the welfare system that makes up 20 percent of public spending and has vowed to cut costs if returned to power in an election next year.
But religious leaders in Britain have criticised the cuts, saying they have forced rising numbers of people to use free food banks, skip meals and turn off heating to save money.
A group of more than 40 senior clergyman, including Anglican bishops, Methodists and Quakers, accused Cameron in an open letter of creating a "national crisis" of hunger and hardship.
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, said he "entirely" agreed with the letter, though he had not been a signatory.
"It is from the upswell in feeling that they (the clergy) are reporting, that sense that they are seeing in their own church communities," Welby, a former oil industry executive, told reporters at his official residence, Lambeth Palace.
Responding to the criticism, a spokesman for Cameron said the welfare reforms were designed to help people move back into the workforce after the worst recession in decades.
"Our welfare reforms are about building a country where people are not trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family," the spokesman said.
Thursday's letter came after Britain's top Roman Catholic, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, last weekend decried benefits cuts as a "disgrace", prompting Cameron to reply that the reforms were a "moral case" to give people hope.
A government-commissioned report released on Thursday confirmed the use of food banks across the UK was rising but disputed claims this was due to increased availability.
"Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut," said Keith Taylor from the Greens party of England and Wales.
Welby has been a vocal proponent of social justice since taking over the Church of England a year ago, for example attacking short-term lenders who charge high interest rates.
The unified voice of Christian leaders over poverty comes as Welby tries to foster closer ties between Anglicans and other denominations, particularly the churches of England and Rome.
On Thursday, he welcomed four members of a Catholic-founded ecumenical group Chemin Neuf of mixed denominations to live at Lambeth Palace for three years, describing it as a "profound" step on the road to unity between the churches.
"It is hopefully, under God, a movement that will bear fruit in the future," Welby said.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Ken Wills