LONDON (Reuters) - A government minister accused Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams of concocting "a recipe for disaster" for suggesting the introduction in Britain of some aspects of sharia was unavoidable.
Main political parties distanced themselves from Thursday's comments on Islamic law by Williams, the spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, who is already battling divisions within his church over gay priests.
"You cannot run two systems of law alongside each other. That would be a recipe for chaos," said Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, joining a chorus of condemnation for Williams.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said "On this I think he is wrong" while former Home Secretary David Blunkett said formalising Islamic law "would be catastrophic in terms of social cohesion".
The Sun said on Friday: "It's easy to dismiss Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a silly old goat. In fact he's a dangerous threat to our nation."
The issue of integrating Britain's 1.8 million Muslims has been widely debated since July 2005, when four British Islamists carried out suicide bombings on London's transport system, killing 52 people.
Those attacks prompted questioning of a long-standing policy of avoiding a single British identity and promoting a multicultural society, which some argue has led to segregation of ethnic minorities.
Speaking to the BBC, Williams said other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws in Britain and called for a "constructive accommodation" with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.
Asked if the adoption of some aspects of sharia was necessary for community cohesion, he said: "It seems unavoidable."
His unexpected comments were welcomed by some Muslim groups, but the government said it was out of the question that the principles of sharia could be used in British civil courts.
"The prime minister is clear that in Britain, British laws based on British values will apply," a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
Sharia is the body of Islamic religious law based on the Koran, the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions, and rulings of Islamic scholars. It covers issues including worship, commercial dealings, marriage and penal laws.
Williams said he was not endorsing the harsh punishments meted out in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where murderers and drug traffickers are publicly beheaded or hanged.
But that did not placate critics.
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, called Williams' intervention "muddled and unhelpful".
"Raising this idea will give fuel to anti-Muslim extremism," he added.
And Labour MP Khalid Mahmood had no doubt about where he stood: "I, along with the vast majority of UK Muslims, oppose any such move to introduce sharia here. British law is the envy of the world."