Northern Ireland

Muslim leaders 'accept Robinson apology'

A delegation of Northern Ireland's Muslim leaders has accepted an apology from Peter Robinson over comments he made about followers of the religion.

The first minister had told the Irish News on Wednesday he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or devotees of Sharia law.

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

A meeting was called between Mr Robinson and members of Belfast's Islamic Centre to discuss the fall out.

Dr Raied Al-Wazzan said, a spokesman for the centre said: "We accepted the apology in private and for us that was a sincere apology and we accepted it."

He added: "He is going to meet the wider Muslim community and some of them may be frank with him and tell him directly how they feel."

'Cause distress'

The first minister made the comments in support of Belfast pastor James McConnell.

After the meeting, Mr Robinson said: "We had a very useful, valuable, friendly and relaxed meeting with the representatives from the Islamic community.

"An excellent opportunity for me to put in context my views on those matters.

"The last thing I would ever have in my mind would be to cause hurt to anyone and if anyone interpreted them that way of course I would apologise."

He said he had accepted an invitation to visit the Belfast Islamic Centre.

Earlier, Mr Robinson said he would never "want to insult or cause distress" to Muslims in Northern Ireland and said his remarks in support of Belfast pastor James McConnell had been misinterpreted.

'Ongoing support'

"For the avoidance of any doubt, I make it clear that I welcome the contribution made by all communities in Northern Ireland, and in the particular circumstances, the Muslim community," he said.

"I very much value their contribution at every level to our society and I will take the opportunity to meet with local Muslim leaders to demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral law abiding citizens in Northern Ireland."

When asked if he owed the Muslim community in Northern Ireland an apology, Mr Robinson said: "If I said anything that was derogatory, of course I would apologise.

"I've indicated very clearly that I would be hurt if any of them felt that I was showing any disrespect for them or was not supportive of them.

Mr Robinson's remarks to the Irish News have been widely condemned by the Muslim community across the UK and by many Northern Ireland politicians.

The first minister had told the paper 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".

Alliance Party assembly member Anna Lo, who was born in China but has lived in Northern Ireland for 40 years, told the Guardian newspaper that she will not seek re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly due to continual racist abuse.

The news came after she told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show she was considering leaving the country after what Mr Robinson had said, as the comments could "escalate even more of the racist tension".

She later said: "I'm very angry about this. In the last few months I have seen such a dramatic increase in racist attacks, two or three a day.

"Then a pastor makes these comments. We have politician after politician defending him and the first minister of this country.

"What sort of place do we now live in? I do feel vulnerable. I know ethnic minorities have been attacked and I feel vulnerable when I walk in the street that I will be attacked."

Earlier Dr Al-Wazzan, said the Islamic Centre supported freedom of speech.

"Everybody has the right to criticise Islam - but we can debate any issue," he said.

"People are afraid of what's happening here and we need to calm things down."

A Londonderry businessman said he was worried that Mr Robinson's comments could damage business relations.

The initial controversy came about when Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic", and said he did not trust Muslims.

Police said they were investigating "a hate crime motive" after complaints about Mr McConnell's remarks.

In his statement on Thursday Mr Robinson said: "I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech.

"I will defend his right just as I defend the right of others to express views with which I disagree.

Pastor James McConnell
Pastor James McConnell made his remarks at Belfast's Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church

"People have the right to express their differing views and indeed the essence of democracy is the ability to do so in a way that is free from fear and intimidation."

Mr Robinson added: "No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims."

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