Williams defends right to raise Islamic law

LONDON (Reuters) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams defended his right to raise sensitive issues such as Islamic law in Britain but said on Monday that his handling of the matter may have been clumsy and misleading.

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The spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans was cheered, applauded and given a standing ovation by fellow clerics when he opened a meeting of the Church of England’s general synod in London.

Williams sparked a political and religious storm last week when he said the introduction of aspects of sharia in Britain was unavoidable. That provoked a string of tabloid headlines with the best-selling Sun launching a campaign for him to quit.

Sharia, the body of Islamic religious law based primarily on the Koran, as well as the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad, has been attacked by many in the West over its treatment of women and punishments for adultery and apostasy.

The row feeds into a broader debate on integrating the country’s 1.8 million Muslims. This issue has assumed greater urgency after suicide bombings by British Muslim militants killed 52 people in London’s transport system in July 2005.

Williams, seeking to clarify his position, said he was not advocating parallel systems of law.

He told the synod he took full responsibility for what he had said “and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large and especially among fellow Christians”.

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Williams said the Church of England, the country’s official religion in an increasingly multicultural society, is “often looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all faith communities living here ... however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance”.

But Williams was unrepentant about raising the subject.

“It is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities,” he told the Church of England parliament.

Williams has stressed he was not endorsing the harsh punishments meted out in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He won backing on Monday from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as “a man of integrity”.

Brown’s spokesman said he understood the difficulties Williams was going through, but he added: “The prime minister believes that British law should be based on British values and that there are no plans to change that and there is no plan to introduce sharia law and make English criminal or civil law in any way inferior to religious law.”

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Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and David Clarke in London and Tom Heneghan in Paris; editing by Peter Millership