The archbishop of Canterbury said Saturday that the people holding Terry Waite hostage in Lebanon would benefit more from his freedom than from his captivity.

The Most Rev. Robert Runcie, head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, said the chances of freeing his emissary are "very difficult in the short term.""But in the long term I remain optimistic," said Runcie, who was in Larnaca for a meeting of the 27 Anglican archbishops.

Waite disappeared in Beirut on Jan. 20, 1987, while he was on a mission to try to secure the release of foreign hostages believed held in Lebanon.

"It is poignant to be so close to Lebanon. I haven't been so close to Lebanon since Terry disappeared," Runcie said during a news conference in a Larnaca hotel, less than 125 miles from Lebanon.

Asked if he had any message for Waite's captors, Runcie said, "Terry Waite always spoke up for the suffering people of Lebanon. If Terry were free, he would be your best ambassador for securing a better and more hopeful future for all the people of Lebanon."

Fifteen hostages are believed held in Lebanon by Shiite Moslem groups loyal to Iran. They include nine Americans. Longest held is Terry Anderson, 41, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was kidnapped March 16, 1985.