Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson is facing growing public outrage and calls for his resignation this week over anti-Muslim comments he made during an interview with the Irish News.
Responding to a claim that a pastor in a church that Robinson has attended denounced Islam as the "spawn of the devil" the First Minister struck a defensive tone.
Robinson, 65, said a Christian minister had a right to "denounce false doctrines.”
The controversy erupted after The Belfast Telegraph revealed Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast said during a sermon this weekend: "Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell."
The 75-year-old pastor's comments quickly sparked a hate speech investigation by the police, who are investigating if it constitutes an incitement to hatred.
But a defiant Robinson said he had visited the Tabernacle church on several occasions and would do so again.
Then in comments that caused further outrage Robinson, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the North’s First Minister, told the Irish News that he would not trust Muslims, particularly those who had connections to voilence or Sharia law, for spiritual guidance, but he would trust them to "go down the shops for me” or with a number of "day to day issues."
Critics have already organized two online petitions, one calling for Robinson to apologize to Northern Ireland’s Muslim community and the other one calling for him to resign.
In an unusual show of consensus Robinson’s remarks were roundly rejected by opposition unionist parties, by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green party.
The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness blasted Robinson’s comments, 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."
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly told the press that Robinson should remember that he is First Minister to everyone in Northern Ireland and should act with responsibility in his words and actions.
British Member of Parliament George Galloway told the press that Robinson's comments make him unfit to be 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," Galloway said.
Critics claim that Robison’s anti-Muslim comments defy the pledge all Northern Ireland Assembly ministers must make “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.”
On Wednesday, Robinson issued a public apology maintaining his defense of Pastor McConnell but clarifying his comments on Muslims.
"I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech," he said.
"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."
He added: "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."
Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Center said he would accept Robinson's invitation to meet the local Muslim community.
"We welcome his support for the Muslim community, and his statement is a little bit more clear than the last one," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback.
Robinson previously backed his disgraced wife Iris’ denunciation of homosexuals, whom she called “abominations” more vile than child abusers and who were in need of psychiatric help, infuriating the North's LGBT community.
When the 64 year old Bible-quoting former politician, a devout Christian, was revealed to be having an affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley, the resultant sex scandal rocked the North’s political establishment.