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LONDON (Reuters) - Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, faced calls to resign on Saturday for suggesting that the introduction in Britain of some aspects of Islamic law was unavoidable.
In a BBC interview on Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury 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 for some matters.
Asked if sharia needed to be applied in some cases for community cohesion, Williams said: "It seems unavoidable."
Williams' comments sparked outrage in some newspapers, led by the mass circulation Sun, which on Saturday launched a campaign to remove him from office, accusing him of giving heart to "Muslim terrorists".
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.
Williams' predecessor as archbishop, George Carey, joined the criticism, saying in a newspaper article to be published on Sunday that Williams' "acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation".
However, he said Williams, who is already battling divisions within his church over gay priests, should not resign.
Some bishops criticised Williams and several members of the Church of England's governing body, the general synod, called for his resignation.
"I don't think he is the right man for the job any longer ... At best it was politically inept and at worst it was sheer foolishness," general synod member Alison Ruoff told Sky News.
Other church leaders leaped to Williams' defence.
George Cassidy, bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said he was saddened by what he called the "hysterical knee jerk reaction" to Williams' comments.
Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in Sunday's News of the World that, while he did not share his view on Islamic law, Williams had his full support. "I understand he is horrified by what has happened," he said.
A statement on Williams' Web site -- here -- denied he had called for the introduction of sharia as a "parallel jurisdiction to the civil law."
Williams himself made no comment on the controversy on Saturday. As he left a church service in Cambridge, a heckler shouted "Resign!" while a few people booed and a few applauded.
Sharia is the body of Islamic religious law based primarily on the Koran, as well as the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammad.
It is a legal framework that regulates both public and private life. Sharia covers a broad range of issues including worship, commercial dealings, marriage, inheritance and penal laws.
Sharia has been demonised by some in the West, primarily for its criminal legal aspects, which can include punishments like amputation of a hand for theft or the stoning of adulterers.
At least 10 Islamic courts, dealing mainly with divorce or financial disputes, operate in Britain, news reports said.
In the United States, too, sharia has been applied locally in some court cases involving domestic issues such as child custody and inheritance.
Editing by Keith Weir