A DUP minister has said he is praying for a controversial evangelical preacher who has found himself at the centre of a storm after slamming Islam as Satanic.
The PSNI is investigating Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast after he described the Islamic faith as a "doctrine spawned in Hell" at a Sunday evening service.
Police said they were investigating "a hate crime motive".
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness waded into the row yesterday, saying "hate-mongering must be condemned in the strongest terms".
During his sermon on Sunday, Pastor McConnell said: "Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell."
He said his remarks were inspired by hearing the story of pregnant woman Meriam Yehya Ibrahim (26), who has been sentenced to death in Sudan after refusing to recant her Christian beliefs.
The cleric has since stood over his remarks, saying he believes he is right.
He also spurned a request by the Belfast Islamic Centre to apologise for his remarks, adding that he was prepared to go to prison for his views if necessary.
First Minister Peter Robinson has remained silent on the matter despite previously having attended the church.
Although his party is officially remaining silent, several of his DUP colleagues have openly voiced support for Pastor McConnell, including Lisburn councillor Jennifer Palmer, who tweeted: "Pastor McConnell is only saying what most Christians believe. Christians are being persecuted in Muslim countries, it's not OK to speak out."
Lagan Valley MLA and Health Minister Edwin Poots was a little more coy, posting on his Facebook, "I will be remembering Pastor James McConnell in my prayers tonight, I would encourage others to do likewise."
Belfast councillor Guy Spence was visible in the choir at the church on Sunday when Pastor McConnell was making his remarks.
He said he did not wish to comment until he had had the chance to listen to the radio debates on the matter which have raged since the Belfast Telegraph higlighted the sermon earlier this week.
A DUP spokesman said that Mr Robinson and the party would not be commenting, as they were focused on their election efforts.
Elsewhere, there has been a swell of support for Pastor McConnell.
Last night a Facebook page entitled Christians Stand In Support of Pastor James McConnell had attracted over 1,000 'likes'.
Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church yesterday also responded to the comments by Pastor McConnell.
"The Presbyterian Church in Ireland believes that every person created in the image of God is entitled to dignity and respect, to welcome and acceptance and to be fully valued," a spokeswoman said.
"As Christians, it is our duty to spread the love of God across Ireland to those whom we meet and with whom we come into contact, irrespective of nationality, race or creed, and be gracious in doing so."
It’s a debate which is worth consideration: Rev David McIlveen
While the comments by Pastor McConnell on Muslim belief were stamped with his characteristic individualism, they will nevertheless resonate with many evangelicals throughout the province. Most people see the different faces of Islam reflected in the shattered and ruined lives of Syrians, Iraqis and Nigerians who, along with others, have suffered from Islamic fundamentalism.
But the one thing that unites Muslims throughout the world is their documented opposition against the Bible-believing Christian. Described in the Koran as “Infidels”, the Christian is warned: “But they who are Infidels and treat our signs as lies — shall be mated with Hell fire”.
While there are certain practices within Islamic teaching that are admirable, it is its spirit of intolerance to those who do not accept their belief that solicits a theological response.
Pastor McConnell has opened up an important debate that should be constructively and compassionately considered.
Rev David McIlveen is minister at Sandown Road Free Presbyterian Church, Belfast
You can’t take a general view of Muslim people: Canon Ian Ellis
Precahing is a very special ministry in the church because it affords the privilege of expounding nothing less than the word of God. I think it should always be such that people will be drawn to Jesus Christ through it, and to a greater and deeper love of God and neighbour.
Pastor McConnell used religious language that I would not use and he seems to me also unfortunately to have suggested a general untrustworthiness of Muslim people.
Despite the persecution of Christians, I would reject any generalised view of Muslim people. I do not view Islam as a monolithic religion but as taking different expressions and possessing within itself a variety of theological traditions.
I believe that the Church of Ireland is right to engage in constructive dialogue with other religions. To do so is not to endorse other religious beliefs but is to recognise those of other faiths who are willing to join in such an effort will do so in the right spirit.
Canon Ian Ellis is editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette