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Archbishop Defends Statement on Sharia Law in Britain

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is head of the Anglican Church, recently provoked an uproar when he suggested it was unavoidable that that some aspects of Sharia law would be incorporated into English law. But as Tendai Maphosa reports from London, the Archbishop says the criticism is not called for.

Archbishop Rowan Williams is the most senior bishop in the Anglican Church in England and the leader of the Anglican Communion around the world. Last week he triggered a barrage of criticism when he suggested that the introduction of elements of sharia law into English law is unavoidable. He was interviewed by British radio.

"As a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law so it's not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system we already have in this country a number of situations in this country in which the law, the internal law of religious communities is recognized by the law of the land," he said.

The archbishop's comment was greeted with outrage by some people who called for his resignation. Some elements in his own church also criticized him. Chris Sugden is the secretary-general of Anglican Mainstream, which represents some 2,000 churches. Speaking on British radio, Sugden called on the archbishop to apologize for his statement, arguing that rather than promote cohesion, it would cause division.

"What he has done in this country and overseas is to open the door to pressure from the Muslim community to take forward the instantiation of sharia law," he said.

Archbishop Williams - who has received the support of Prime Minister Gordon Brown - has refused to back down. Speaking on national television Monday before the Church of England synod, Williams said his comments were taken out of context.

"It posed the question to the legal establishment they were entitled to enjoy as a citizen of the United Kingdom and I concluded that nothing should be recognized which had that effect."

While Williams' comments on sharia law were criticized by some, they were welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain. VOA spoke to its deputy secretary-general, Daud Abdullah.

"He was trying to set forth a debate on the issue of Muslim personal law which is quite different from its penal system here he was referring in his lecture to issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance, perhaps burials of the dead, support, child custody, these are the issues covered in Muslim personal law and he was not saying that it should be imposed upon British people but he was saying let us explore ways of accommodating it," he said.

Abdullah said if sharia law were to be allowed in Britain, it would only be imposed on people wanting to be ruled under issues covered by such law. He says Britain is not an Islamic state, so forms of shari considered extreme in the West would not apply here.