First Minister Peter Robinson has made a public apology to Muslims who were offended by his defence of a controversial preacher, and acknowledged that his remarks had caused them hurt.
Speaking after a visit to the Belfast Islamic Centre, the First Minister said he never intended to insult anyone.
Mr Robinson said he had apologised “face to face, personally, man to man, the way it should be done”.
He said he hoped to now “draw a line” under the row, which erupted after he spoke out in support of Pastor James McConnell.
His public climbdown was welcomed by deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who said it was the right thing to do.
Mr Robinson had been facing mounting calls to publicly apologise over his defence of Pastor McConnell, who attacked Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic” and said he did not trust Muslims.
In a later interview, the First Minister said he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or devotees of Sharia law, but added that he would trust them to go to the shops for him.
Amid ongoing anger over the comments, Mr Robinson attempted to draw a line under the matter by visiting the Islamic Centre in south Belfast last night.
He was met by a delegation of Muslims, one of whom presented him with a bouquet of flowers.
Afterwards, flanked by members of the Islamic community, Mr Robinson expressed his regret over the hurt his remarks had caused. “I apologise to these gentlemen if anything that I said had caused them hurt and I can see that in many cases it has,” he said.
He added: “A lot of people seem to think that sorry is a difficult word to use. I have to say that whether it’s because of my background or my mischievous childhood, I’ve been used to saying it an awful lot at times throughout my life.
“I don’t find it a difficult word to use and I made it very clear to the people who were present tonight that I apologise for any offence that I might have caused, and I made it clear to them that the very last thing that I would ever have on my mind would be to cause anyone hurt or distress or to insult them, and I make that publicly clear as well, in the clearest possible terms.
“I cannot spend the rest of my life apologising but what I can do is spend the rest of my life building the united community that I believe we want in Northern Ireland.”
Asked about whether he would condemn Pastor McConnell’s comments, Mr Robinson said it was not the role of any politician to give doctrinal opinions, but added that people have the right to free speech provided they exercise responsibility.
Standing alongside the DUP leader, Raied Al-Wazzan from the Belfast Islamic Centre said the meeting had been “frank and open”.
“We have heard the First Minister apologise and I think we now have to draw a line under this issue,” he said.
Also present was Muhammad Asif Khattak, one of the two Pakistani men attacked in north Belfast at the weekend. He welcomed the apology, saying: “It means that he is not the leader of any particular group, he is the leader of every ethnic minority.”
Last night Martin McGuinness urged Pastor McConnell to follow the First Minister’s lead and publicly withdraw his “damaging and insulting” comments.
“The visit by Peter Robinson to the Belfast Islamic Centre and the public apology he made there was the right thing to do,” he said.
Alliance MLA Anna Lo also welcomed Mr Robinson’s apology.