Northern Ireland’s First Minister has claimed controversial remarks he made about Muslims have been misinterpreted and insisted he would never wish to insult or distress members of the Islamic community.
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson has faced a storm of criticism after he publicly backed a firebrand evangelical preacher who said he did not trust Muslims.
Police are currently investigating the contentious sermon made by Pastor James McConnell in his north Belfast church earlier this month to see if its contents constituted a hate crime.
Mr Robinson’s subsequent comments in a newspaper interview that he himself would not trust Muslims for spiritual guidance but would trust them to “go down the shops” for him were characterised by his critics as insulting and condescending.
The veteran politician today moved to clarify his views.
“Over the course of the last 24 hours my remarks in response to a newspaper reporter have been misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended,” he said.
“I would never seek to cause any insult to any section of our community. 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. 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.
“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. 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.
“No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims. I can assure members of the Islamic community I respect their contribution to our society. I believe in building a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and have always endeavoured to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland.
“I look forward to meeting with representatives of the Muslim community as soon as it can be arranged.”