First Minister Peter Robinson has given his full support to the Belfast preacher who made headlines after making controversial comments about Islam.
The DUP leader, who has attended Pastor James McConnell’s church in Belfast, said he supported the preacher’s right to criticise the Islamic faith.
Police are currently investigating the contentious sermon made by the pastor earlier this month to see if its contents constituted a hate crime.
Mr Robinson said he had visited the pastor’s church many times in the past and would do so again in the future.
“There isn’t an ounce of hatred in his bones,” he said.
“This is somebody who has lived his life for Christ.”
Mr Robinson said it was the duty of any Christian preacher to “denounce false doctrine”.
“He is perfectly entitled to do that – its an appropriate thing for a minister to do,” he said. “It’s been happening for generations and nobody should look at that issue.”
He said a sermon like Pastor McConnell’s was not a legal document “with caveats, conditions and qualifications”.
The preacher had applied “a broad stroke” when talking about trusting the followers of Islam, Mr Robinson told the Irish News.
Mr Robinson said he would not trust Muslims who had been involved in “terrorist activities” or those who were “fully devoted to Sharia law, or I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance”.
However, he did say he would trust them to “go down to the shops for me” and to undertake other day-to-day tasks.
If expressing such views was a hate crime, he said, then he was “going straight away to the police to ask them to take action against all those who say they don’t trust politicians – you can’t have it both ways”.
The DUP leader said it was “a bogus argument” to suggest that not trusting a group of people was a hate crime; he noted that he had to use bulletproof windows, use police escorts, and had suffered death threats on account of his political beliefs.
It was important for Christians to “show love”, he said, but said people were taking “a mole hill” and developing it into “a massive mountain on these kinds of issues”.
In response, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who had accused the pastor of hate-mongering, told Mr Robinson to show some leadership.
“All of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to represent and stand up for all the people of our society,” he said yesterday.
“We have a duty to promote equality, mutual respect and tolerance for all in our society based on the core principles contained in the Good Friday Agreement.”
But Mr Robinson hit back on Twitter: “I won’t take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organisation on equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all.”
The two men were meeting the Turkish ambassador yesterday.
Mr McConnell, who is the senior pastor at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in north Belfast, branded Islam a heathen doctrine during a fiery address.
“People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them,” he said.
“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said yesterday: “I haven’t seen Peter’s comments in detail, but I feel that what Pastor McConnell said was wrong.”
She added: “It’s a matter for the First Minister how he responds to these remarks – people obviously have different perspectives.
“For myself, I do condemn the remarks made by Pastor McConnell and don’t believe they are justified – Islam is a peaceful religion.”
Respect MP George Galloway said Mr Robinson’s comments “render him unfit to be the first minister”.
“It’s simply incredible ... that someone with a duty to try and represent and protect the interests of all the people ... should endorse these kind of words,” he said.