First Minister Peter Robinson in public apology to Muslims

First Minister Peter Robinson was greeted with a bunch of flowers at the Islamic centre in south Belfast

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Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has made a public apology for comments he made defending a pastor who called Islam "heathen" and "satanic".

Mr Robinson came under fire last week for defending comments made by Pastor James McConnell.

But on Tuesday he met Muslim community leaders at Belfast Islamic Centre and apologised to them.

"I apologised face to face, personally, man to man, the way it should be done," he said.

Speaking outside the centre on Tuesday evening, after his private meeting, Mr Robinson said that he respected the people he had met and understood just how important a role they played.

"This society does depend on people from ethnic and religious minorities for the day-to-day life of our province," he said.

"I can't spend the rest of my life apologising, but what I can do is spend the rest of my life building the united community in Northern Ireland," Mr Robinson said.

He added that he now wanted to draw a line under the matter.

'Right thing to do'

Among those attending the meeting was Muhammad Asif Khattak, one of the two Pakistani men who was attacked in north Belfast at the weekend.

The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, said the public apology was "the right thing to do".

"There is an onus on all of us in positions of political leadership to represent everyone in our society," he said.

"That involves promoting equality, mutual respect and tolerance and standing up for all communities. Those are the key principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

"It also demands that we stand up to racism wherever and how ever it is manifested. I would now urge Pastor McConnell to take a lead from the first minister on this and publicly withdraw his damaging and insulting comments."

South Belfast MLA Anna Lo also welcomed the apology.

"It offers us the opportunity to move forward, from words of reassurance to actions that will make a real difference to the lives of people from minority communities," she said.

Mr Robinson came under fire last week for defending Pastor McConnell's remarks. The first minister told the Irish News he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to Sharia law.

However, the DUP leader said he would "trust them to go to the shops" for him.

Mr Robinson later said his remarks had been misinterpreted.

At Stormont, earlier on Tuesday, assembly members condemned the recent racial attacks and expressed their opposition to racism, discrimination and intolerance.

The assembly passed, without a formal vote, a motion calling for all parties to show leadership on the issue and urging the first and deputy first ministers to bring forward a racial equality strategy as a matter of urgency.

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