Wilson pays tribute to pastor

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Tributes have been paid to Belfast pastor James McConnell by DUP MP Sammy Wilson after he announced his immediate retirement as minister of Whitewell Tabernacle in north Belfast.

The East Antrim MP, who frequently attends the north Belfast church, said he “didn’t know” whether the recent controversy when Pastor McConnell described Islam as “heathen ... satanic ... a doctrine spawned in hell” had hastened his retirement.

“I would imagine it could have hastened that because he did feel very hurt by the reaction there was and the controversy it engendered,” said Mr Wilson.

“He has been talking about stepping down for about two years. Like anyone who has built something up there was a reluctance to let go.”

The pastor, who later apologised for any offence caused, announced his decision to retire after 57 years of ministry at Whitewell in a statement read out to the congregation.

The 77-year-old has suffered a number of health setbacks in the last three years.

DUP leader Peter Robinson was heavily criticised when he backed Pastor McConnell – and later visited the Belfast Islamic Centre to make a public apology for his comments. In June, Mr McConnell was questioned by police about his remarks.

Yesterday a PPS spokesman said: “An investigation file has been received from police and is under consideration. In the circumstances it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

Mr Wilson said “many people in the church will be very sad to see Pastor McConnell go”.

“The church has identified with him and he was identified with the church.

“He was very much involved with his parishioners to the point where if he had been in someone’s house and saw they had no food he would have gone and got them their messages,” he said.

“That was just the kind of person he was, a very human individual.

“And unfortunately because of all the controversy around the last number of months he was almost presented as an ogre which he certainly wasn’t, or a very intolerant person which he certainly wasn’t.

“On a very personal level he didn’t care what people believed, but he knew what he wanted them to believe and tried to persuade them to have the same faith and beliefs that he had. I hope he will be remembered as someone who had that kind of vision and did great work in a working-class and very difficult area in north Belfast.”

Mr Wilson said what he “liked about him was that he was always very blunt and I know that annoys people, but I like that because you were never under any illusions as to what he was saying when he was preaching”.