An outspoken cleric who described Islam as "satanic" is to attend a ground-breaking conference involving Muslim leaders, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
It is the first time firebrand preacher James McConnell has been invited to such an event, which will also include Jewish and Christian leaders.
Pastor McConnell, who is approaching his 80th birthday in May, is due to speak at the opening session of the event on Thursday week, March 9.
"It gives me an opportunity to put my views across," he said. "I have never been asked to participate in anything like this before. I was always treated like a pariah. But if I refused to go I would be accused of cowardice."
In a sermon broadcast on the internet in 2014, Pastor McConnell described Islam as "heathen", "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell" and said he did not trust Muslims.
Although he later apologised amid public outcry, and said he had no intention of hurting ordinary Muslims, the Public Prosecution Service brought charges against him.
However, the Belfast Metropolitan Tabernacle leader was acquitted last year after a judge ruled that, while offensive, his remarks did not amount to being "grossly" offensive under the law. Pastor McConnell said: "People are always asking me if I am sorry for what I said and I tell them 'No, I am not sorry' because what I said is right. It is not Muslims I am opposed to, it is their theology.
"But I have always been a supporter of free speech. I might disagree with what a Muslim or a Catholic might say but they have a right to say it. We are living in a free country."
One of those due to attend the so-called 'gathering of people of influence' will be Muslim cleric and Irish traditional singer, Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini who testified on behalf of Pastor McConnell during his court case.
"He is a Muslim cleric and intellectual and he came to court to speak in support of me and we have become good friends," the pastor revealed.
McConnell's portion of the two-day event, organised by singer Tommy Sands, is open to the public and he will be quizzed by the audience.
"I have been told to expect questions - in fact, that they are going to pepper me with questions - and I am up for that," he said.
But the second all-day section of the conference in Rostrevor is to be held in private and the veteran evangelical preacher is not sure if he will stay for that.
"I will just wait and see how it goes. If I don't like it, I will be coming home," he explained.
Issues which are to be addressed include how to exercise the "most important and hard-won right" of free speech, and rejecting "the name-calling of the past" in Northern Ireland.
Songwriter Sands approached McConnell about taking part after the pastor's autobiography, The Good, the Bad and Jesus Christ, was published last October. "He knows Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini who is also a fine musician so they have that connection," he added.
The event, which will also include Belfast Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty, comes out of an annual tradition in the village since the early 1990s, called the Music of Healing seminar - based on a song of that name penned by Sands with the legendary folk songwriter, Pete Seeger.
"In the context of global insecurity, religious extremism, Brexit and the future of the Stormont Assembly, the participants will embark on a journey with people they strongly disagree with, understanding at all times that they may continue to disagree," a spokesman said.
Other Muslim guests include Sheikh Dr Umar Al Qadri and Sheikh Dr Ali Saleh, along with a delegation from Belfast Islamic Centre.