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Evangelical Leader Calls for 'Ceasefire' on Sharia Controversy

The General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, the Rev. Joel Edwards, has urged a "ceasefire" in the recent row between people of faith and secularists over the place of religious belief under the rule of law.

The recent assertion by the Archbishop of Canterbury that the accommodation of Sharia law in the British legal system was "unavoidable" lifted the lid on deep divisions over the extent to which secular British law should take religious belief into consideration.

Edwards was speaking at a debate on "Religion, belief and the rule of law" with the leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, when he argued that a secular experiment to privatize faith had failed.

The evangelical leader, who is also a commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), also called for both sides to demonstrate humility.

"We need a cease-fire between faith and non-faith, between religion and non-religion, and an attitude of mutual humility and mutual respect," he said.

"For religion, the problem is not the secular humanists' quest for a better and more humane society. It's the idea of doing it in the absence of God," he added. "We need to stop and think how our shared aspirations for a better world can be expressed in mutual respect which becomes a joint project in crafting a rule of law for post-Christendom Britain."

Cameron, meanwhile, argued that if aspects of Sharia law were to be incorporated into the British legal system, this would lead to a legal and cultural apartheid.

In response, Edwards questioned the extent to which public discourse could work if conscience is left out of the picture.

"Conscience and conviction should not have special pleading, but it should have equal status in democratic discourse," he said. "Exemptions in law based on conscience and conviction should not be dismissed simply on the basis of being influenced by faith."

The debate was organized by the EHRC and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) to further consider some of the issues raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, in a lecture earlier this month. Williams' comments on Sharia law drew wide criticism but were also seen as having opened an important debate on accommodating the right of religious groups in an increasingly diverse society.

The discussion panel included Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC, and Commissioners Ziauddin Sardar, an expert on Islam and contemporary cultural issues, Francesca Klug, a member of both the Government's Commission for Equality and Human Rights Task Force and Steering Group, and Joel Edwards.

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