Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Armed forces bishop says sorry for praising Taliban

Bishop Venner had been accused of giving "comfort and succour" to the enemy

The new bishop to the armed forces has apologised over comments he made about how the Taliban could be admired for their "conviction to their faith".

The Right Reverend Dr Stephen Venner said his words had been taken out of context by the Daily Telegraph.

"I'm not trying to support the Taliban," he told the BBC. "At the moment what they are doing is evil."

He said he would be "deeply grieved" if anyone had taken offence and hoped he had not jeopardised his job.

Following his comments in Monday's Daily Telegraph, one MP accused the bishop of giving "comfort and succour to the enemy".

What you never do is give comfort to the enemy
Bob Russell MP

In his interview the Anglican bishop said the attitude taken towards the Taliban had been "too simplistic".

Bishop Venner told the paper the insurgents could "perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other".

"There's a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation," he told the paper.

'Very apologetic'

But in a BBC interview, he admitted it may have been naive to make such comments.

"I am not trying to support the Taliban," he said. "Very far from it. I am very supportive of our forces.

Robert Pigott

by Robert Pigott, Religious Affairs Correspondent

The problem with Bishop Venner's interview is partly that he misread the national mood.

After the deaths of so many servicemen and women, there's little public appetite for distinguishing between more or less bad Taliban fighters.

There has also been surprise that a bishop should be unaware of the danger of seeming to praise any aspect of such a group, let alone their conviction in their faith.

British Muslim groups insist that the Islam practised by the Taliban is distorted and bears little comparison with their own faith.

They also point out that deep convictions can just make an extreme position even worse.

Bishop Venner accepts all these arguments, and says the interview was reported out of context.

He also points out that it was conducted three months ago, and circumstances have changed.

"And if what I've said and the way it's been reported, has caused offence, then of course I'm deeply grieved, and very apologetic, and if that comes under the heading of naivety then I plead guilty."

Bishop Venner said the way the interview had been written up had made his comments look "incredibly insensitive".

He also insisted he had been talking about engaging with the Taliban once the military operation was over.

"It was one small phrase in quite a long interview, and a phrase that simply said you cannot describe everybody under one heading as Taliban as being equally black, equally evil," he said.

"These are human beings and there are some amongst them who could - we don't know - who could perhaps be people with whom at the end of the day we could do business."

Some insurgents had been coerced into fighting or were ill-informed, he added.

Bishop Venner later released a statement, reiterating his "full support" to the British and allied troops.

"The way the Taliban are waging war in Afghanistan is evil, both in their use of indiscriminate killing and their terrorising of the civilian population. No religion could condone their actions," he said.

"I give my full support to the British and allied troops who are engaged in the country, seeking to work with the Afghan government to bring stability, democracy and an enduring peace."

"Comfort and succour"

Following the publication of Bishop Venner's Daily Telegraph interview, the Liberal Democrat MP for the garrison town of Colchester, Bob Russell, said the bishop had given "comfort and succour to the enemy".

"What you never do is give comfort to the enemy. It is one thing for people to have respect for their enemy, but there is a world of difference here," he said.

Mr Russell added the bishop should concentrate on "boosting the morale of our armed forces rather than boosting the morale of our enemy".

Bishop Venner had previously been the Bishop of Dover and only recently took up his post as Bishop to the Armed Forces.

He will continue his role as Bishop for the Falkland Islands.

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The Independent Tom Sutcliffe: The funniest shows leave out laughter - 9 hrs ago Bishop regrets 'insensitive' Taliban comments - 19 hrs ago
Times Online Armed Forces bishop says sorry for praising Taleban - 21 hrs ago
Ananova Bishop praises Taliban 'loyalty' - 30 hrs ago

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