NI's first minister defends pastor's anti-Muslim remarks

First minister Peter Robinson, left, has been criticized for defending anti-Muslim remarks.PA

Peter Robinson, first minister of Northern Ireland, has received widespread criticism for his defense of a Christian pastor who has branded Islam as "satanic".

Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in Belfast is currently under investigation for his comments made during a sermon on 18 May during which he declared that "a new evil has risen" and "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell".

He also compared "cells of Muslims right throughout Britain" to the IRA.

McConnell's remarks drew condemnation from those who argue that his inflammatory choice of words could cause an increase in prejudice against Muslims, and even inspire hate crimes.

It came as a surprise, therefore, that first minister Peter Robinson leapt to McConnell's defence in an interview with the Irish News, announcing that "there isn't an ounce of hatred in his bones".

He also noted that though there may be some "good Muslims" in Britain, "I don't trust them".

"I wouldn't trust them for spiritual guidance," he shared, though the DUP leader made sure to add that he would allow Muslims to "go down to the shops" on an errand for him, or deal with various "day to day issues".

Unsurprisingly, these comments haven't gone down well. According to the BBC, MP George Galloway has labelled it "simply incredible...that someone with a duty to try and represent and protect the interests of all the people living in the place he is presiding over, should endorse these kind of words".

"Frankly, it sounds like the kind of language that would have gone down well in South Africa a few years ago or the southern parts of the United States half a century ago," David Ford, Stormont Justice Minister, added.

"Whatever the precise words, it conveys the impression that people are somehow less than others because of their religious beliefs or the colour of their skin, and that must be resisted."

The Muslim Association of Britain has also condemned McConnell's words for their promotion of "hatred and bigotry", and has suggested that Robinson's defence "demonstrate[s] his lack of leadership, when as a representative he should be sensitive to the constituents he represents".

This morning, however, Robinson released the following statement, in which he says his words have been "misinterpreted" by the media.

"Over the course of the last 24 hours my remarks in response to a newspaper reported have been misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended," he says.

"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 circumstance, 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."

However, he also added that McConnell was within his rights to criticise Islam. "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," Robinson says.

"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."