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Archbishop of Canterbury responds to his critics on Sharia law

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has defended comments he made about the role of Sharia, which is part of Islamic law, in the British legal system, saying he was not advocating "parallel jurisdictions".

Addressing the general synod of the Church of England on 11 February, the Anglican leader stressed he was not proposing that Sharia had equal standing in the United Kingdom, nor was he suggesting that any attempt to accommodate Islamic law into the British legal system should undermine "the status and liberties of women".

Williams said he believed "some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said".  Then he added, "But I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview and for any misleading choice of words that’s helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large, and especially among my fellow Christians.”

Still, he said, "I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues about the perceived concerns of other religious communities, and to try and bring them into better public focus."

Archbishop Williams has faced widespread criticism in his call for "constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law" and his suggestion that the application of Sharia seemed "unavoidable" in certain circumstances to maintain community cohesion in Britain.

The archbishop, who is the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, made his comments first on a BBC radio programme on 7 February and then expanded on them later in the day during a lecture to a group of lawyers in London.

Speaking to the general synod, he said he had hoped to raise wider questions about the role of religion in society, particularly the "relation between faith and law". In the past there had been an understanding that "the law protects the consciences of religious believers", Williams said. "However, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular," he added.

The archbishop said he was looking for "ways of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all-or-nothing basis".

Critics of his original remarks included his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (George) Carey.

"His conclusion that Britain will eventually have to concede some place in law for aspects of Sharia is a view I cannot share," Carey wrote in the News of the World Sunday newspaper. "There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights. His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation."

Further criticism came from Germany’s top Protestant bishop, Wolfgang Huber. "I don’t believe in giving indirect support to a legal system which in some countries considers a change of religion to be apostasy from Islam to be punished by death," said Huber, who heads the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

Britain’s United Reformed Church, however, expressed support for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"It is an important debate and we welcome the Archbishop’s initiative in raising the issue. We regret the extent to which his comments have been misrepresented and misunderstood," said deputy URC general secretary, the Rev. Ray Adams "Clearly this is an issue for society, given our increasingly plural religious make-up. How do civil secular law and religious plurality engage with one another, especially with regard to matters of religious conscience?"

Commentator Andrew Gimson of the Daily Telegraph newspaper wrote, "The lecture has provoked an outpouring of ignorant and brutish abuse, but it has also exposed the sham liberalism of so many in public life and the media.

"Pseudo-liberals would rather avoid the question of how to reconcile the claims of sacred and secular law. They are terrified by the idea that we should look carefully at Sharia law, and resentful of the calm and learned way in which the archbishop has done so, for it shows up their own intellectual timidity." [700 words]

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