A recent controversy over anti-Islam comments in Northern Ireland has come to an end quickly after representatives of the Irish Muslim community asserted that they have received and accepted an apology from First Minister over anti-Islam slurs he made lately.
“We accepted the apology in private and for us that was a sincere apology and we accepted it,” spokesman for the Belfast Islamic Centre, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, told Irish Independent.
The controversy erupted ten days ago when pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast told his congregation that “a new evil had arisen” and “there are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain”.
Wading into the controversy, Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) first minister, supported McConnell’s claims in an interview with the Irish News newspaper.
Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre said Robinson’s remarks about trusting Muslims to go the shops for him were “hurtful”.
The announcement was made after three members of Belfast’s Islamic Centre met the Democratic Unionist leader at Stormont Castle on Thursday to discuss the fall-out from his comments in support of anti-Islamic pastor McConnell.
The news was confirmed after DUP spokesman said that the meeting had been “valuable, friendly and relaxed”.
A party statement added that Robinson was willing to apologize to anyone who had been hurt or distressed by his comments.
“Robinson outlined his views and made it clear that there was never any intention on his part to offend or cause distress to anyone,” the party spokesman said.
“He said that if anyone interpreted his remarks in that way that he would apologize to them and that he would welcome the opportunity to continue conversations at the Belfast Islamic Centre.
“The First Minister recalled his previous help and support for the Islamic community and indicated that his support was ongoing. Mr Robinson reiterated the important role that the Islamic community has played in Northern Ireland, particularly in businesses, education and medicine.”
Robinson issued another statement saying his comments were misinterpreted.
“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,” the DUP leader said.
“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.”
Dr Al-Wazzan praised the meeting with Robinson as “thoughtful, very honest and open”.
“We have told him what we felt,” he said.
Dr Al-Wazzan also welcomed Robinson’s acceptance of an invitation to visit the centre, opening a new page with the Muslim community.
“He is going to meet the wider Muslim community and some of them may be frank with him and tell him directly how they feel,” he said.
Muslims make up 1.1 percent of the 4.5 million people in Ireland, but their ranks are swelling due to immigration, domestic births, and in some cases conversion.
Two decades ago, they numbered about 4,000.
A 2011 census recorded 49,204 Muslims, including nearly 12,000 school-aged children. The numbers represent a 51 percent increase since 2006.