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Sun 10 Feb 2008 03:43 PM

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Row continues over UK Sharia law

Church leader's claim introduction of some aspects of Sharia in UK are unavoidable sparks backlash.

Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's 77 million adherents to the Church of England, was facing a backlash in the UK on Sunday for suggesting that the introduction some aspects of Sharia law in the UK was unavoidable.

In an interview with British broadcaster the BBC on Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury had talked about the use of Sharia to resolve some personal or domestic issues among Britain's Muslims, much like the way Orthodox Jews have their own courts, Beth Din, for some matters.

Asked if some aspects of the Sharia civil code needed to be applied in some cases, Williams said: "It seems unavoidable."

The British government has distanced itself from Williams' comments, whilst several members of the governing body within the church have called for his resignation.

Others bishops have supported him and denounced the outcry by some sectors of the media as "hysterical".

Williams, speaking to the BBC on Thursday, said other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws in Britain and he called for a "constructive accommodation" with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

"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," Williams said.

The archbishop also emphasised said he was not endorsing capital punishment carried out in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where murderers and drug traffickers are publicly beheaded or hanged.

Sharia, the cumulative body of Islamic religious law, covers issues including worship, commercial dealings, marriage and penal laws, but is implemented in varying degrees and methods in Muslim-majority countries.

Muslims in the UK should have a choice in legal disputes over marriage and financial matters, Williams said.

"There are ways of looking at marital dispute, 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 said.

The issue of integrating the country's 1.8 million Muslims has been widely debated since July 2005, when four British Muslim citizens carried out suicide bombings on London's transport network, killing 52 people.

Following the uproar over his comments, the archbishop's office released a statement on Friday saying he made no proposals for Sharia and "certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law".

"The Archbishop opened his lecture by noting importantly that the very term Sharia is not only misunderstood, but is the focus of much fear and anxiety deriving from its application in some contexts," the statement on his website said.

LINK: The Archbishop of Canterbury's statement

Williams' predecessor as archbishop since 2003, George Carey, joined the criticism, saying in comments published on Sunday that Williams' "acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation".

However, he said Williams should not resign.

"I don't believe he saw the implication of the speech he made," Carey said, reported newswire AP. "I understand he is horrified by what has happened."

Yahya Birt, son of former BBC director-general John Birt and a British Muslim academic, said the archbishop's aim appeared to have been to promote bringing existing informal Sharia courts under the scope of English law.

"For some decades now under English civil law, marital and inheritance law and the arbitration of disputes have been judged under Sharia if both parties have freely consented to adjudication on that basis," Birt wrote on his website.

LINK: Yahya Birt's comments

"Where such claims have fallen foul of English law or contravened basic human rights legislation, they have been rejected by the courts," he said.

Some aspects of Islamic finance had already been introduced into English law to enable the development of a competitive Islamic finance sector, Birt added.

In response to Williams' comments on Thursday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office said: "There are instances where the government has made changes in regulations, for example to include Sharia-compliant mortgage products, but in general terms, Sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor can the principle of Sharia law be used in a civilian court."

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