Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson has made a public apology for any offence caused to Muslims by his defence of a controversial preacher.
Mr Robinson, who also told a newspaper he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to sharia law which can refer to all aspects of Islamic life, said he did not find it difficult to use the word sorry.
He faced strong criticism after defending fundamentalist Christian pastor James McConnell.
Mr McConnell said Islam was a satanic religion and claimed cells of Muslims were organised in Britain in the way the IRA operated during the conflict.
A spate of racist attacks in Belfast has threatened minorities and a Pakistani man was hospitalised after being assaulted in his house at the weekend.
Mr Robinson met leaders of the Muslim community in Belfast last night.
He said: “I made it very clear to the people present tonight that I apologise for any offence that I might have caused.
“The very last thing that I would have ever have in 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.”
The controversy began last month when Mr McConnell held a church service during which he said he did not trust Muslims.
He added: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell,” and claimed former MP Enoch Powell was right during his “Rivers of Blood” speech criticising immigration into Britain in 1968.
Police said they were investigating a suspected hate crime after the comments were placed on the Metropolitan Tabernacle Church’s website.
In an article on his Church's website, Pastor McConnell maintains: “I want to put it on record that I would never wish to hurt anyone or to incite any form of violence. I deplore violence no matter where it comes from.
“I hate no-one and I think I have proved this. People of all denominations and backgrounds are made welcome at our church and my record proves that for 60 years I have reached out to every community”.
Mr Robinson has attended the pastor’s evangelical church in north Belfast in the past.
In response to the comments, the First Minister told the Irish News he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to sharia law which can refer to all aspects of Islamic life.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party leader said he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him.
Mr Robinson later clarified that his remarks had been misinterpreted.
He said the meeting with local Muslims at the Belfast Islamic Centre, a nondescript terraced house in a leafy area close to Queen’s University, went well.
He added: “I apologised to them face to face, personally, man to man, the way it should be done. A lot of people seem to think sorry is a difficult word to use.
“I have to say, whether it is my background or mischievous childhood, I have been used to saying it an awful lot of times throughout my life. I don’t find it a difficult word to use.”
The number of racist incidents reported to police in the North increased by almost a third in the past year, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s annual crime statistics.
There were 982 racist incidents in the 2013/14 financial year, an increase of 30.9%. However, sectarian incidents decreased by 6.4% to 1,284.
Two Pakistani men living in Belfast have said they will leave after they were assaulted in their home in a suspected racist attack over the weekend.
Police have said the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has been orchestrating racist attacks in south and east Belfast.
Assistant chief constable Will Kerr has noted it contributed to an overall 70% rise in hate crime in Belfast.
He said: “It has a deeply unpleasant taste of a bit of ethnic cleansing.”
A Hong Kong-born Stormont Assembly member has warned she does not feel safe living in Northern Ireland in the wake of a recent upsurge in racist hate crimes.
The Alliance Party’s Anna Lo, who was a candidate in the recent European election, has announced she will not seek re-election as an MLA in 2016 as she is fed up with “tribal politics”.
At Stormont earlier today, members of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly condemned the recent racial attacks and expressed their opposition to racism, discrimination and intolerance.
Ms Lo said: “We must stop the tide of racism in Northern Ireland. We need political leadership here from this house. We need, all of us, to unite together, to stand together.”
Sinn Féin’s anti-racism motion was passed unanimously.
It called for all parties to show leadership on the issue and urged the first and deputy first ministers to bring forward a racial equality strategy as a matter of urgency.
Mr Robinson said some points were being addressed by his Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister but the work, which critics believe is long overdue, would be complete soon.
Muslim leaders said he should return to meet them about a range of issues surrounding ethnic minorities.
Dr Osama Chahrour, a scientist, was among a large group of people who met Mr Robinson.
“He was clear about his explanation and apology.”
He added: “It was a good visit.”