Peter Robinson has said that if it is safe for the Pope to come to Northern Ireland he should be able to do so.
The First Minister said that as a Protestant he had “no need or desire” to meet the Pope and described last week’s Belfast City Council motion inviting the pontiff as a “fanciful... political stunt on the part of the SDLP”.
However, although Mr Robinson downplayed the likelihood of an imminent Papal visit, he made clear that if the security situation allowed for such an event, Roman Catholics should be able to welcome the leader of their church to the Province.
Asked about the issue, he said: “There’s nothing like an election to bring about the most fanciful nonsense in the political realm.”
Speaking with incredulity in his voice, Mr Robinson said: “Do you really think the Pope has any intention of coming to Northern Ireland?
“First of all, he’ll not come on the basis of an invite from Belfast City Council; if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was discussing those issues, they would be discussing them with us.
“My first step around all of that would have to be security; the security of the VIP first of all to start off with...however, we do welcome people to Northern Ireland; the business that we have is to encourage people to come to Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland to move forward and be a normal society and if people of that faith want to invite the Pope, then they should be able to do so.
“I am not of that faith, and therefore don’t have the same desire to do so but I would defend the right of others to meet their spiritual leader.”
Unionists abstained at Belfast City Council on Monday night, allowing the council motion to invite Pope Francis to pass with Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance support.
Meanwhile, an evangelical Protestant group has repeated its criticism of Mr Robinson’s attendance at slain PSNI officer Ronan Kerr’s funeral Mass.
The Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS) — whose secretary is veteran DUP member Wallace Thompson, a former ministerial adviser to Nigel Dodds when he was finance minister — said that Mr Robinson’s response to its past criticism was “sad”.
A lengthy article in the EPS magazine said it was “sad that he appeared unable or unwilling to acknowledge that he has offended many evangelical Protestants” and said that “attempts to justify attendance at Requiem Mass are superficial, spurious and extremely weak”.