Muslim representatives say they have received and accepted an apology from Peter Robinson in the wake of controversial remarks he made about members of the Islamic faith.
Three members of Belfast’s Islamic Centre met the First Minister at Stormont Castle on Thursday to discuss the fall-out from his comments in support of anti-Islamic evangelical preacher James McConnell.
Earlier, the veteran politician issued a statement claiming that his words had been “misinterpreted” and insisting he would never wish to insult or distress Muslims. While that statement stopped short of an apology, the delegation from the centre said Mr Robinson did say sorry in private.
On Thursday night a DUP spokesman confirmed that the party leader had “apologised to the Muslim leaders for any offence caused”.
Spokesman for the Belfast Islamic Centre, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan said: “We accepted the apology in private and for us that was a sincere apology and we accepted it.”
A further statement issued by the DUP after the meeting said Mr Robinson was willing to apologise to anyone who had been hurt or distressed by his comments. A party spokesman described the meeting as “valuable, friendly and relaxed”.
He said: “Mr Robinson outlined his views and made it clear that there was never any intention on his part to offend or cause distress to anyone. He said that if anyone interpreted his remarks in that way that he would apologise to them and that he would welcome the opportunity to continue conversations at the Belfast Islamic Centre.”
“The First Minister recalled his previous help and support for the Islamic community and indicated that his support was ongoing. Mr Robinson reiterated the important role that the Islamic community has played in Northern Ireland, particularly in businesses, education and medicine.”
Dr Al-Wazzan described the meeting as “thoughtful, very honest and open”.
“We have told him what we felt,” he said.
Dr Al-Wazzan also welcomed Mr Robinson’s acceptance of an invitation to visit the centre.
“He is going to meet the wider Muslim community and some of them may be frank with him and tell him directly how they feel,” he said.
Afterwards, the representatives from the centre also met Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Mr Robinson faced a storm of criticism this week after publicly backing Pastor McConnell, who earlier this month said he did not trust Muslims.
Mr McConnell, who is a fundamentalist Protestant preacher at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in north Belfast, branded Islam a heathen doctrine during a fiery address to his congregation.
“People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don’t trust them,” said the pastor.
“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
Police are currently investigating the contentious sermon made by Mr McConnell 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 DUP stalwart, who has attended Pastor McConnell’s church in the past, told the Irish News that claiming not to trust one section of society was not a hate crime, adding: “If it is then I’m going straight away to the police to ask them to take action against all those who say they don’t trust politicians.”
The controversy erupted at a time when race hate attacks in Northern Ireland are on the increase.
Under mounting pressure over the issue, Mr Robinson went on the front foot today, first issuing his statement of clarification and then embarking on a round of media interviews.
The statement said his original remarks had been “misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended”.
He again defended Pastor McConnell’s right to free speech, but stressed: “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.”
He added: “No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims.”
Later, the First Minister claimed that comments in the original newspaper interview that he would not trust Muslims who followed Sharia law to the letter, alluding to violent punishments, or those involved in terrorism would be supported by the majority of people in the Western world.
In regard to his remark about trusting a Muslim to go down to the shops, Mr Robinson said he would accept it could have caused offence if that was all he said.
“But it wasn’t,” he insisted. “I indicated that on all the everyday aspects of life (I would trust them), I specifically also mentioned that if I was going in for an operation and the surgeon was Muslim, would I trust him - of course I would. The actual comment about going to the shops was very much on the basis of saying that it was absurd that you wouldn’t trust people to do anything.”
Mr Robinson also attempted to allay concerns expressed by some members of the business community in Northern Ireland that trade with Islamic countries could be impacted by the controversy.
“We have a very good relationship with many Islamic countries and we will continue to do so and I suspect the people in those countries when looking at those kind of decisions will look at exactly what I have said and all that I have said, rather than just taking a few words out of the middle of it,” he said.
While reiterating his defence of Pastor McConnell’s right to say what he said, Mr Robinson significantly did not endorse the churchman’s views.
“I have consistently made it clear that in terms of the Islamic faith, and it would be the same if you asked me about any of the doctrinal issues of any other faith, that as a politician I have no comment to make on those whatsoever - it’s not my position to be giving views on doctrine or theology,” he said.
“What I do say is I defend people’s right, whether they are from the Protestant faith, the Catholic faith or Muslim faith, to be able to comment and, if they feel it necessary, to criticise other doctrines. It would be a lack of freedoms if we were not allowing people to do so.”
SDLP Leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell was one of those challenging the first minister to say an unequivocal “sorry” to Muslims.
On Thursday, Mr McDonnell with representatives of the Belfast Islamic Centre and stressed his party’s “unequivocal support”.
He said: “This is an eccentric and totally unrepresentative situation that has evolved with Pastor McConnell and the First Minister.
Dr McDonnell added: “I believe this embarrassing and humiliating situation does not reflect what the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe. Peter Robinson must say ‘sorry’, loud and clear and without delay.”
Meanwhile, at Thursday’s quarterly meeting of the Irish Inter-Church Committee, a statement issued afterwards read: “We regret that many people in Northern Ireland have been deeply hurt by the content and tone of Pastor McConnell’s comments in his recent sermon and we welcome the First Minister’s clarification of his own position.”
The statement added: “Christ calls us to love our neighbours. We pray that we may continue to build good relationships between Muslims and Christians throughout Ireland.”