Muslim rant preacher: First Minister Peter Robinson moves to defuse Islam row
Peter Robinson accused of breaking conduct rules as Islamic leader seeks meeting over comments
First Minister Peter Robinson this morning said he did not "want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims" when he defended a firebrand evangelical preacher who denounced Islam from the pulpit as "Satanic".
The DUP leader said comments he made in support of Pastor James McConnell's remarks had been "misinterpreted."
In a newspaper interview yesterday, Mr Robinson defended Pastor McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle following his sermon in which Islam was slammed as a "doctrine spawned in hell".
Mr McConnell also said there may be "good Muslims" in Britain, "but I don't trust them".
There have been calls for an investigation into comments by the First Minister to determine whether he has breached the rules of Stormont's Code of Conduct.
This morning, the DUP leader issued a statement saying: "Over the course of the last twenty-four hours my remarks in response to a newspaper reporter have been misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended.
"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 circumstances, the Muslim community."
However, yesterday the DUP leader complained that the pastor had been demonised because of his remarks, and that there "isn't an ounce of hatred in his bones".
He told the Irish News that, like the pastor, he would not trust Muslims, particularly those involved in violence, or those who are "fully devoted to Sharia Law".
But Mr Robinson, who attends the church and intends to go back, said he would still trust them to "go down to the shops for me" or give him the right change.
As condemnation flooded in from across the political spectrum, a spokesman for Belfast's Islamic Centre said Mr Robinson had caused hurt to his community.
However, Raied Al-Wazzan issued an invitation to the DUP leader to visit them and discuss his "unfortunate" comments. He said Mr Robinson was supposed to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.
"And we feel as a Muslim community part of this country, so he is representing us. His comment is definitely not helpful. It really hurts, and many people will take offence at what he has said."
Despite the comments, Mr Robinson met the Turkish ambassador yesterday to promote trade with the 99% Muslim country. He was accompanied by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
But after they put on smiles for the cameras, the pair quickly attacked each other. In a statement, Mr McGuinness urged Mr Robinson to show leadership and embrace religious diversity.
Mr Robinson swiftly retorted in a curt response on Twitter: "I won't take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organisation on equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all."
Alliance's East Belfast MP Naomi Long called for Mr Robinson's comments on Islam to be investigated by the Assembly.
"My reading of the Code of Conduct is that it probably does exceed what is acceptable," she said.
"There is a particular duty on elected representatives to treat everyone equally and with dignity and respect.
"I don't think that suggesting essentially that you would trust Muslims to go to the shop for you is showing much respect either for the individual or for a group of people.
"They are very unfortunate comments and would really be best retracted."
Former Stormont minister Alex Attwood described Mr Robinson's defence of Pastor McConnell as "reckless and wrongheaded", claiming he had "crossed lines that you do not cross".
"I don't know if he has broken the ministerial code but that should be examined," he said. "Whether he has broken the code or not, he has broken his responsibilities of leadership in that he has got on the wrong side of what is expected of a responsible leader."
Education Minister John O'Dowd queried whether Mr Robinson viewed Muslim people "as his co-equals or does he see them as people who go to the shop for him".
UUP MLA Danny Kinahan said he believed the comments "fell far short of what we expect of a First Minister, who should represent all of our citizens, regardless of race, or creed".
Peter Robinson's full statement
“Over the course of the last twenty-four hours my remarks in response to a newspaper reporter have been misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended.
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 circumstances, 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.
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. 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.
No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims. I can assure members of the Islamic community I respect their contribution to our society. I believe in building a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and have always endeavored to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland.
I look forward to meeting with representatives of the Muslim community as soon as it can be arranged.”
Galloway condemns Robinson on Radio Ulster's Talkback show
'Unfit as First Minister'
British MP George Galloway even waded into the row this morning, saying Mr Robinson's comments "render him unfit to be the First Minister".
"It's 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," he said.
The ministerial code of conduct requires Northern Ireland Assembly ministers to take a pledge of office, which includes the promise "to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination".
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was the first politician to slam Robinson publicly, saying: "There is a real need for all of us those in positions of responsibility to step out of our own political constituencies and religious groupings and show genuine political leadership for all."
That prompted a heated reply from Mr Robinson, who hit back on Twitter, stating: "I won't take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organisation on equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all."
Ironically the two men have been meeting the Turkish ambassador today, who is in Belfast to discuss future flights to Istanbul.
Islam is the main religion in Turkey, where it is estimated that 99.8% of the population is Muslim.
Mr McGuinness tweeted a picture from the meeting late this afternoon:
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford expressed his outrage at Mr Robinson's remarks, saying: "Frankly it sounds like the kind of language which would have gone down well in South Africa a few years ago or in the southern parts of United States half a century ago - you know, these people can only be trusted to do such and such.
"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.
“It clearly isn’t a hate crime to say you don’t trust someone but it creates the atmosphere in which we have sadly seen other people carry out hate crimes; we have seen that over many years in Northern Ireland.
The Alliance Party leader added: "People in public life need to be extremely careful about the language they use because they produce all the intellectual justification they like but if it actually leads to somebody carrying out an attack, a hate crime, daubing someone’s house, physically attacking people in the streets, threatening, intimidation or putting people out of work or out of their houses, that’s unfortunately what happens in this society when people make speeches like that."
UUP MLA Danny Kinahan issued a statement distancing himself from the views of the DUP leader.
He said the comments "caused a great deal of hurt and offence to many people" and could inflame the increase in racist attacks in north and east Belfast.
“I do not believe that sweeping generalisations can be applied to an entire religion encompassing many hundreds of millions of people worldwide and I seriously doubt that such sentiments will play well in a number of countries from which Invest NI are seeking to attract much needed jobs and investment.
“Public representatives must be mindful that their comments can have consequences, often unintended ones," said Mr Kinahan, a member of the Stormont all-party group on Ethnic Minorities.
“Recent months have brought an upsurge in disgraceful racist attacks, particularly in Belfast and we must all work together to reduce racism. I believe that elected representatives have a duty to provide leadership and to refrain from comments which could inflame an already difficult situation or provide any kind of cover for the activities of those who seek to attack minority communities.
“I believe that Peter Robinson’s comments this morning fell far short of what we expect of a First Minister, who should represent all of our citizens, regardless of race, or creed.”
'Danger of language'
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said Peter Robinson must remember that he is First Minister to everyone in Northern Ireland and must act with responsibility in his words and actions.
She said: “Peter Robinson’s backing of Pastor McConnell’s comments on the Muslim faith sends out a direct message, not only to Muslims in the north, but to those of every faith deeply offended, that this is acceptable. It is not acceptable.
“The DUP should understand, considering the deeply divisive nature of our recent past, the danger of language that whips up prejudice and hatred and invites violence from others. The First Minister cannot condone such comments and then wash his hands of any consequences.
“OFMDFM has been sitting on a race relation strategy and have failed those who are in need."
She added: “As First Minister, Peter Robinson is First Minister to all the people of the north, not just unionists or Christians. He needs to retract his comments and progress legislation that will strengthen and protect the rights of people of all race and faith and strengthen our relationship with them.”
Meanwhile, social media users reacted angrily to Mr Robinson's tweet stating he "won't take lectures" from Martin McGuinness:
Police have launched an investigation into a a potential hate crime after outspoken evangelical pastor James McConnell defended describing the Islamic faith as "satanic" and a "doctrine spawned in hell".
He made the remarks as he addressed his congregation at the Whitewell Tabernacle Metropolitan Church earlier this month.
They were described as "very offensive", "hurtful" and "irresponsible" by a representative from the Belfast Islamic Centre.
There was also outcry on social media.
One user posted: "If this was a Muslim Imam speaking about Christianity, he would be arrested for inciting hatred."
During his sermon, the clergyman said: "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."
He also likened Muslims to the IRA, saying there were cells spread right across the UK.
When asked why he made the comments, he said "because it is against the holy scriptures".
"The Bible says there is one God the father and one Lord Jesus Christ and that is what I believe and that is what Christianity is all about."
Raied Al-Wazzan from the Belfast Islamic Centre said: "I wonder what knowledge he has about Islam to say all of that.
"Has he met any Muslims and discussed these things with them?
"We respect Jesus and Noah and Moses as much as we respect prophet Mohammed.
"And you will never find any Muslim who will say any bad words about Jesus.
"I would like to invite him to a debate to see the Muslim point of view.
"Maybe he has been affected by the media these days because there is a lot of bad reports about Muslims and linking that with terrorism – he is mixing some of the political issues here with religion.
"I'm aware there are some Muslims using Islam for the sake of political view – but that doesn't mean all Muslims approve of that."
Against the backdrop of the recent surge of hate and racial crimes across Northern Ireland, Pastor McConnell denied that his comments were "irresponsible".
He said: "I do not teach my people to have hate policies or to go and hurt people – definitely not."
He added: "Anybody that comes to our church sees the love that is in our church and the welcome in our church, sees the kindness in our church.
"We have helped people from Islam. We have helped them financially, we have helped them in other ways. We are not against them but we are against what they believe.
"If they had their way, I believe we would be persecuted even in Northern Ireland and particularly in Britain."
Also in his sermon, the minister told his congregation: "Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don't trust them."
He told the Belfast Telegraph: "Islam is allowed to come to this country, Islam is allowed to worship in this country, Islam is allowed to preach in this country and they preach hate.
"And for years we are not allowed to give a tract out, we are not allowed in Islam, we are not allowed to preach the gospel.
"We are persecuted in Islam if we stand for Jesus Christ."
Pastor McConnell said people had said they were pleased he had "stood up for the Christian faith".
"I think this is the first call I have got about people (being) shocked," he said. "Nobody else has phoned me about it.
"I got a lot of comments saying people were pleased that I took a stand and people were pleased that I stood up for the Christian faith.
"The sermon I preach is on the internet and you can get it.
"The bible talks about the doctrines of devils and the bible also says that the devil can appear as an angel of light – he's not a person with horns and a big tail.
"The devil is a fantastic looking creature. He was the anointed cherub and he was cast out of heaven. These people are believing in doctrines of devils."
Whitewell Church was founded in 1957 and started with just 10 people – it has now increased to a capacity of more than 2,500.
Pastor McConnell's congregation has included politicians like Peter and Iris Robinson, Sammy Wilson, Gavin Robinson and leading figures from the world of sport.
Chief Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said: "Commissioners have expressed their dismay at the remarks by Pastor McConnell. Comments which negatively stereotype entire communities are unacceptable.
"They have also expressed their concern at the intervention of the First Minister.
"It is incumbent on all leaders in public life to demonstrate in what they say, and what they do not say, a real and true respect for all human beings.
Additional reporting by PA
Belfast Telegraph Digital