Archbishop unerpentant over Sharia comments

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The Archbishop of Canterbury has told the General Synod of the Church of England that he accepts responsibility for confusion about his comments on Islamic law in the UK.

But he added that is was right of him to raise the concerns of faith communities and some of his remarks had been misinterpreted.

“Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said,” he told Synod members gathered in London for a pre-planned meeting.

Since saying last week that the adoption of elements of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable” he has been under attack from all sides.

The Synod, the Church of England’s parliament, was addressed by Dr Rowan Williams this afternoon.

A small number of members had called for his resignation over the Sharia law issue, but he has the support of the vast bulk of members and church-goers.

“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,” Dr Williams 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.

“If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country – as well as our own – we shall, I believe, be doing something we as a church are called to do in Christ’s name: witnessing to his Lordship, not compromising it. “

Today the Prime Minister defended him. A spokesman said:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury is a man of great integrity and dedication to public and community services, and he understands the difficulty he is facing at the moment.

“The Prime Minister is very clear that British laws must be based on British values, and that religious law, while respecting other cultures, should be subservient to British criminal and civil law.”

In a radio interivew and a speech last week Dr Williams said that a “constructive accommodation” must be found over issues such as divorce and added that people should not imagine “we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with Saudi Arabia.”

However, the Archbishop went on to criticise the practice of Sharia law in some Muslim states, specifically the treatment of women and extreme punishments.

Homosexuality is punishable by death under Sharia and more than hundred of gay men have been put to death in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

“It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system,” said Dr Williams.

“There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.

“It would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general.

“But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them.

“In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.”

He later denied that he called for the introduction of Sharia Law. In a statement he said that he “certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law.”

He said that he was “exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience”.

Alison Ruoff, a Synod member from London, said yesterday: “He is a disaster for the Church of England. He vacillates, he is a weak leader and he does not stand up for the church. I would like to see him resign and go back to academia.”

Rev Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney, defended Dr Williams yesterday. He told BBC Radio 4:

“I think the big issue here is the way the press has treated the Archbishop of Canterbury for raising a legitimate issue for him to raise.

“That is the big moral picture here. They have been a pack of dogs having a go at him without even trying to understand what he said.

“There is something sinister about a culture that judges first and tries to understand later.”