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UK PM rejects special laws for Muslims

  • Story Highlights
  • UK's highest ranking Christian leader wants limited application of Islamic law
  • The archbishop of Canterbury is noted for addressing controversial issues
  • PM's spokesman says: British law should apply, based on British values
  • Supporters say allowing Sharia law would increase respect and tolerance
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The UK's leading Christian leader has drawn fierce government criticism after he suggested that Islamic -- or Sharia -- law be used to resolve financial and domestic issues between UK Muslims.

Rowan Williams, the UK's highest-ranking Christian leader, is noted for addressing controversial issues.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said Thursday that the milder aspects of the legal system -- in force across the Islamic world -- might also apply to the UK's 1.6 million Muslim population.

Williams said that the move to Sharia was unavoidable and that certain aspects of it were already recognized in UK society. "It is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system," added Williams, who has a reputation for floating controversial ideas and holding forthright opinions.

"We already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognized by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances," said Williams.

"There are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them." Video Watch Rowan Williams make his comments on Sharia law. »

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Williams added that to do so would need the public to change its perception of what sharia involved and disregard the more extreme applications of the code and its attitude towards women.

But his comments, while drawing support from some quarters, have been rejected by the UK government.

A spokesman for UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown dismissed the idea and said that while there might be issues where Muslim needs could be accommodated within the UK legal system, Sharia law could not be used to justify breaches of law.

"The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values," the spokesman said.

Speaking on BBC1's Question Time programme, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham added: "You cannot run two systems of law along side each other. That in my view would be a recipe for chaos, social chaos.

Fellow Christian leader the Right Rev Tom Butler, The Bishop of Southwark, in comments reported by the UK's Press Association, said that while the archbishop had raised legitimate questions he had ventured into a "minefield."

"It will take a great deal more thought and work before I think it is a good idea... The archbishop has a way with language, but this was a very heavy lecture."

CNN's Paula Newton said that Williams' comments had caused problems for the government, which has been trying to include Islam into British society rather than make it feel excluded.

Newton added that the archbishop was treading on sacred and had been somewhat presumptive not to recognize the diversity within Islam. "It shows either arrogance or naivety to venture into the debate here," she said.

But Williams received support from some quarters.

Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation, the UK's leading Muslim youth organization said that the comments "further underline the attempts by both our great faiths to build respect and tolerance."

"I believe that Muslims would take huge comfort from the Government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith."


Conservative lawmaker Peter Bottomley said in comments reported by PA that "the archbishop says accurately it's inevitable, it's happening and the Government have led it.

"The question of whether there will be further accommodation or adaptation is a more minor issue than some loudmouths have realized." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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