Islamic representatives in Northern Ireland have welcomed a public apology from an evangelical preacher who sparked controversy when he said he did not trust Muslims.
Pastor James McConnell, who described Islam as “satanic” and “heathen” in a firebrand sermon last month, was today interviewed by police officers who are investigating whether he committed a hate crime.
Police said their inquiries will continue and, at their conclusion, a file will be passed to prosecutors for assessment.
Before voluntarily attending Newtownabbey police station in north Belfast this morning, the 77-year-old churchman said he was sorry if his words had caused distress.
“I wish to emphasise that I had no intention of causing any offence or insulting any member of the Muslim community or to arouse fear or stir up or incite hatred towards any member of the Muslim community,” he said.
Spokesman for the Belfast Islamic Centre, Dr Raied Al Wazzan welcomed Mr McConnell’s statement.
“The apology is definitely welcome,” he said.
“Yes, it is three weeks late but late is better than never. We do accept his apology.”
Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson publicly apologised earlier this week for comments he had made in defence of the pastor.
Mr Robinson was heavily criticised after he said he would not trust Muslims for spiritual guidance but would trust them to “go down to the shops” for him.
Dr Al Wazzan said the whole episode had damaged race relations in the region and said work was needed to mend them.
“The current issue caused some race relation problems and we need to still work to heal that, so we still have to do some work, maybe we can come together and show solidarity with each other and support each other.”
Mr McConnell, who is pastor at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, offered to visit the Belfast Islamic Centre in his statement of apology.
Dr Al Wazzan said he would be welcome.
“He is very welcome like everybody else,” he said.
“The Belfast Islamic Centre is open doors for anybody who wants to come to listen to our faith and see what we believe in - everybody is welcome.”
Mr McConnell’s “clarification statement” was posted on his church’s website this morning.
“I wish to apologise publicly for any distress I may have unwittingly caused on my part,” he said.
“My sermon was drawing attention to how many followers of Islam have, regrettably, interpreted the doctrine of Islam as justification for violence.
“I have qualified my comments by reference to those who use their religion as justification for violence. As a preacher of the word of God, it is this interpretation of the doctrine of Islam which I am condemning.
“I abhor violence and condemn anyone, of any faith, who uses religion to justify it.
“I have devoted 60 years of my life to the service of God and preached the word of God as a pastor to thousands of people in our community over my lifetime.
“I have worked tirelessly to promote my Christian doctrine. Many faiths and denominations have attended at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, including members of the Muslim faith.
“My mission has created a community in Ethiopia which ensures over 600 children a day, including Christians and Muslims, have access to clean water and food. In addition, we fund a clinic in Kenya which provides 1,200 people a month with access to medical care.
“I believe in the principle of free speech and in freedom of religion.
“Finally, I also will welcome any opportunity to attend at the Islamic Centre in Belfast in the near future.”
A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) spokeswoman said: “Police have interviewed a 77-year-old man today and continue to investigate offences connected to a number of allegations of race related crimes. Upon completion of those investigations, police will submit a file to the Public Prosecution Service.”