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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 17:54 GMT
PM extends support to archbishop
By Laura Kuenssberg
BBC News

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams says he does not regret speaking out
Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury was pushed into the political wilderness.

The main parties, one after the other, described his comments as unhelpful - in Westminster-speak, tantamount to condemning his stance.

Shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi said, for instance: "Dr Williams seems to be suggesting that there should be two systems of law, running alongside each other, almost parallel, and for people to be offered the choice of opting into one or the other.

"That is unacceptable."

But after several days of public scorn aimed at Dr Rowan Williams, the prime minister extended his support.

Gordon Brown's official spokesman said the archbishop is a man of "great integrity" who is dedicated to community and public service.

What's more, he said the prime minister, no stranger to negative publicity himself, "understood the difficulties" the archbishop is facing at the moment.

I think people will always react strongly when they feel questions of national identity are at stake
Michael Wills

His spokesman said the two had a "close relationship" - and that Mr Brown had been kept in touch on developments in the last few days.

However, he reiterated Mr Brown's previous comment 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".

Gordon Brown has for many months called for a debate on Britishness, but he could not have anticipated the row the archbishop provoked when he questioned incorporating more religious law into our system.

Michael Wills, a justice minister, who is conducting a review on our national identity, said he was not surprised that Dr Williams's comments provoked such a strong reaction.

"I think people will always react strongly when they feel questions of national identity are at stake and what we know, not just from this, but almost every area of our public life, is that national identity is very important to the people of this country.

"And that's precisely why we're about to launch our consultation on the British statement of values."

Ministers acknowledge that there may be a sense of dislocation in some communities.

They want a public discussion to come up with a statement of values identifying what binds society together.

Rowan Williams did not intend to shove that debate along so dramatically, but his comments on Sharia law may have focused political minds.



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