Northern Ireland

Peter Robinson under fire for backing Pastor James McConnell's Islamic remarks

Pastor James McConnell described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic", during an address on Sunday
Pastor James McConnell described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic", during an address on Sunday

Northern Ireland's first minister Peter Robinson has come under fire for defending a pastor who made controversial comments about Muslims.

James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic", and said he did not trust Muslims.

Mr Robinson said he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to Sharia law.

But he said he would "trust them to go to the shops" for him.

Speaking on the Nolan Show on Wednesday night, Mr McConnell said he was surprised by Mr Robinson's comments.

"He didn't really need to do that, because when a man talks like that his career is at stake," he said.

"I didn't want him to get into trouble over me."

Police said they were investigating "a hate crime motive" after complaints about Mr McConnell's initial remarks, made on 18 May.

Mr McConnell told his congregation "a new evil had arisen" and "there are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain".

"Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell," he said.

He said he agreed with the late MP Enoch Powell, whose 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech criticised immigration.

"Enoch Powell was a prophet, he called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened," he said.

Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist Party first minister, who made the comments in an interview with the Irish News newspaper, has attended the evangelical church in the past.

'False prophesy'

Mr Robinson said that Mr McConnell had been demonised because of his remarks, and that there "isn't an ounce of hatred in his (the pastor's) bones".

Peter Robinson made his comments in an interview with Irish News politics reporter John Manley

Mr Robinson said that it was a duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as "false prophesy".

He went on to say that he would not trust Muslims either, particularly with regard to those who had been involved in violence, or those who are "fully devoted to Sharia law, I wouldn't trust them for spiritual guidance".

However, Mr Robinson said he would trust Muslims to "go down to the shops" for him or to deal with a number of other "day to day issues".

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin called on Mr Robinson to show leadership in promoting equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all.

In response, Mr Robinson said on Twitter that he would not "take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organisation".

The two men have been meeting the Turkish ambassador on Wednesday.

Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said: "Frankly, it sounds like the kind of language that would have gone down well in South Africa a few years ago or the southern parts of the United States half a century ago."

Mr Ford, who is the Alliance Party leader, added: "Whatever the precise words, it conveys the impression that people are somehow less than others because of their religious beliefs or the colour of their skin, and that must be resisted."

The Equality Commission's chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said he was dismayed by Mr Robinson's comments.

"It is incumbent on all leaders in public life to demonstrate in what they say, and what they do not say, a real and true respect for all human beings," he said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: "I haven't seen Peter's comments in detail, but I feel that what Pastor McConnell said was wrong.

She added: "It's a matter for the first minister how he responds to these remarks - people obviously have different perspectives. For myself, I do condemn the remarks made by Pastor McConnell and don't believe they are justified - Islam is a peaceful religion."

A senior Belfast Muslim said Mr Robinson's remarks about members of his faith were "degrading and insulting".

Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre said Mr Robinson's remarks about trusting Muslims to go the shops for him were "hurtful".

'Utterly disgraceful'

Khalid Anis from the Islamic Society of Britain told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show that he was shocked that a prominent politician in a position of leadership could speak "with such a double tongue".

Mr Anis said that for a person in authority, like Mr Robinson, to make such remarks was "utterly disgraceful".

The Muslim Association of Britain said: "The pastor's comments not only hurt thousands of Muslims living peacefully in Northern Ireland, but also promote hatred and bigotry against all Muslims in the UK.

"The words of Mr Robinson demonstrate his lack of leadership, when as a representative he should be sensitive to the constituents he represents."

Respect MP George Galloway said Peter Robinson's comments "render him unfit to be the first minister".

"It's simply incredible... that someone with a duty to try and represent and protect the interests of all the people living in the place he is presiding over should endorse these kind of words," he said.

'Demeaning'

Ulster Unionist assembly member Danny Kinahan said Mr Robinson's comments had "caused a great deal of hurt and offence to many people".

"I do not believe that sweeping generalisations can be applied to an entire religion encompassing many hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and I seriously doubt that such sentiments will play well in a number of countries from which Invest NI are seeking to attract much-needed jobs and investment," he said.

Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party said: "As first minister, Peter Robinson has a duty to represent the country and I am dismayed by his comments that he would only trust a Muslim to get him something from a shop.

"That is extremely demeaning and disrespectful to an entire religion."

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: "Our first minister has sent out a message to the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is a closed and unwelcoming society."

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