Claim KKK stunt was Halloween banter rejected by leading Muslim
The group of people who dressed as Ku Klux Klan members were engaging in "Halloween banter", it has been claimed.
A source close to those involved insisted their presence near the Islamic prayer house in Newtownards was "spontaneous" and they hadn't set out to cause offence.
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They said the group was on a pub crawl, and posed for the photo as they passed the Bangladesh Islamic Community Centre en route to a fancy dress party.
However, a leading Muslim representative said he believed the "disgusting" scenes were planned.
Executive treasurer of Belfast Islamic Centre Dr Raied Al-Wazzan also criticised those excusing the photos.
"If that's all it is, as some people are saying, then these people should have no problem coming forward to identify themselves," he said.
"At the very least they should contact the police and give their side of the story, but all the evidence so far indicates this was a premeditated act of hate."
The image was taken on Greenwell Street on Saturday night before being reported to the police on Sunday and is being treated as a hate crime.
Dr Al-Wazzan said it was the latest in a series of intimidating acts against the small number of worshippers who gather in the community centre and has left many feeling afraid to go back.
"These individuals went out of their way to buy these costumes, obtain crosses and deliberately chose to gather outside a mosque," he pointed out.
"But this is the third time that a handful of people have done something like this, which makes it even more disturbing."
Last year a pig's head was left on the doorstep of the mosque and Islamophobic graffiti was painted on a wall of the building.
However, Dr Al-Wazzan said the Islamic community took encouragement from "the vast majority of people", including elected representatives, who condemned the incident.
During an interview on the Nolan Show, one caller referred to comments by Dr Al-Wazzan in 2015 which appeared to support Islamic State. At the time he referred to the Iraqi city of Mosul as "the most peaceful city in the world" after it was seized by the terror group. He later apologised and withdrew his remarks.
Responding to the caller yesterday, he said: "It was taken out of context and I used the wrong word at that time. I come from Mosul, whenever Isis took over my family was there. You could say (we were held) hostage by Isis. I had a very tricky act at how to talk to the media and keep my family safe at the same time. At that time I used the wrong words and condemned it immediately after that and I definitely don't support them."
A short video emerged on social media of the group in KKK costumes in a JD Wetherspoon pub on Saturday night.
Wetherspoon's Eddie Gershon told the BBC the group was refused entry by door staff but pushed past them.
"They were told by bar staff that they would not be served. They remained in the pub for five minutes, unserved, and then left," he said.
The KKK costumes seen at the weekend are available for €21 (£18.50) from Dublin based firm costumesinireland.ie. It is unclear if it supplied the outfits seen in Newtownards, but they have identical markings and are shown on the website with an individual holding a blood-soaked prop sword. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.
The photos of the group were widely condemned by local politicians. Strangford MLA Peter Weir said the actions of the group went beyond stupidity.
Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir said society would "stand shoulder to shoulder" with victims of the intimidation.