Northern Ireland’s first minister has made a public apology for any offence caused to Muslims by his defence of a controversial preacher.
Peter Robinson, who had offered a private apology to senior Islamic representatives last week, made the latest remarks on a visit to Belfast Islamic Centre.
He told a battery of television cameras and press of his regret at having caused hurt by his words, and strongly hit out at racial or religious attacks.
He had been particularly under fire in the past week for saying that although he would not trust Muslims for spiritual advice, he would trust them to run shopping errands.
He said: “I made it very clear to the people present tonight that I apologise for any offence that I might have caused.
“The very last thing that I would have ever have in my mind would be to cause anyone hurt or distress or to insult them and I make that publicly clear as well in the clearest possible terms.
“I cannot spend the rest of my life apologising but what I can do is spend the rest of my life building the united community that I believe we want in Northern Ireland.”
During his visit to the centre on Tuesday evening, he removed his shoes as he was offered a tour of the building.
Outside as he was greeting members of the small faith community, reporters could hear the sound of the azan – the traditional call telling worshippers to assemble for prayers.
He was offered also gifts of flowers and a Koran, and afterwards told reporters that felt the creation of a new centre needed the “express” treatment, given what he referred to as cramped conditions in the existing building.
He drew nods from the leaders of the centre when he said he hopes he can call them his friends, and also praised the contribution which many were making to the Province, joking that he had met so many Muslim doctors on his tour of the building that he wondered how the NHS could still be going while they were all at the centre.