Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Journalist Yvonne Ridley defends friendly Northern Ireland in wake of Islam row

Journalist Yvonne Ridley

A Taliban kidnap victim who famously converted to Islam after her release has told young Pakistani students in Karachi not to be put off coming to Northern Ireland to study.

Journalist Yvonne Ridley – who was famously abducted in Afghanistian in 2001 while on assignment for the Sunday Express – made the plea in a speech to young people about Islamophobia in the west.

Ms Ridley was speaking in the Pakistani city of Karachi last night as news of First Minister Peter Robinson's remarks about Muslims continued to spread throughout the Middle East.

Mr Robinson sparked fury last week after he was reported saying that he would not trust Muslims for spiritual advice but would trust them to go to the shop.

He was speaking as he offered his support to evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell, who had claimed Islam was satanic and Muslims could not be trusted.

The DUP leader has since tried to defuse the row by saying he did not intend to cause any offence and has apologised to representatives of the Belfast Islamic Centre in a private meeting.

However calls have been made for him to publicly apologise.

Last night, Ms Ridley spoke to 350 young men and women at the Dream World Resort in Karachi about Islam and the Islamophobia she had encountered since her conversion. Among those in the audience was the Bishop of Pakistan, Nazir Alam, of the United Church of Pakistan.

During Ms Ridley's speech she mentioned Mr Robinson's comments and stressed they in no way reflected the "hospitality of the lovely people of Northern Ireland". "I'm sure you have all heard about the Northern Ireland first minister's comments that he didn't trust Muslims other than to do his shopping," she told those at the event organised by the Muslim Ummah Solidarity Forum.

"I hope you are able to distinguish between Islamaphobic politicians defending toxic hate preachers and the good people of Ireland, who are very tolerant and hospitable people. Please don't let his comments deter you from going to Ireland to study, work or visit for a holiday. Ireland is a great country and so are its people."

There were 1,091 Pakistani people in Northern Ireland when the last census was taken in 2011 – 0.06% of the population. In 2001, there were fewer that 700.

Queen's University is currently offering at least 100 scholarships in postgraduate or engineering and social science programmes to Pakistani students. The university counts a number of students from Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries among its numbers.

Writing on her blog last week Ms Ridley said she was disappointed that Mr Robinson had not calmed the situation.

"Instead, Peter Robinson chose to inflame the situation when instead of condemning the words of the firebrand cleric, he chose to defend him," she wrote.

"Now the DUP leader said comments he made in support of Pastor James McConnell's remarks had been 'misinterpreted'.

"His weasel words are too little, too late ... the genie is out of the bottle."

The DUP leader said he felt that Pastor McConnell had been demonised because of his remarks, and that there "isn't an ounce of hatred in his (the pastor's) bones". Mr Robinson said that it was a duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as "false prophesy". He went on to say he would not trust Muslims either, particularly with regard to those who had been involved in violence, or those who are "fully devoted to Sharia law, I wouldn't trust them for spiritual guidance".

However, Mr Robinson said he would trust Muslims to "go down to the shops" for him or to deal with a number of other "day-to-day issues".

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