DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland's Protestant leader retreated Thursday from anti-Muslim comments he made when defending a Belfast evangelist's right to denounce Islam, but government colleagues accused him of defending prejudicial attitudes at a time of rising race-motivated violence.
"No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims," First Minister Peter Robinson said in a statement that offered no apology for his original comments. Robinson said he planned to meet leaders of Northern Ireland's Muslim community — representing about 5,000 of the 1.8 million residents of the British territory — to express his "support for them as integral law-abiding citizens."
Robinson continued to argue that Pastor James McConnell, one of Northern Ireland's most prominent preachers, should enjoy freedom of speech from his pulpit to describe Islam as evil and Muslims as untrustworthy.
Many Protestant and Catholic church and political officials have joined Belfast Muslim leaders in criticizing both McConnell's sermon and Robinson's support for the evangelist. Robinson, 65, has led Northern Ireland's five-party government alongside Catholic leaders since 2008.
McConnell told his congregation May 18 that Islam was "a doctrine spawned in hell" and that Muslim immigrants to Britain ran terrorist cells nationwide.
"People say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so. But I don't trust them," McConnell said in comments distributed through his church's Web site and spread through social media.
Robinson, who has attended McConnell's church, offered support both for the preacher's right to speak and the sentiments expressed.
He told a Belfast newspaper, the Irish News, that he also distrusted those Muslims "who are fully devoted to Sharia law" — but would trust them to collect his groceries or hand him the correct change in a shop.
When the audiotaped interview was played Wednesday on BBC radio, jaws dropped across Northern Ireland. Many branded Robinson's comments as both racist and patronizing. The government's justice minister, David Ford, said Robinson used "the kind of language that would have gone down well in South Africa a few years ago or the southern parts of the United States half a century ago."
Robinson's Catholic deputy in government, former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, said leaders from the traditional British Protestant-Irish Catholic divide must "step out of our own political constituencies and religious groupings and show genuine political leadership for all."
Robinson dismissed his power-sharing partner in a tweet: "I won't take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organization."
The only ethnic-minority member of Northern Ireland's legislature, Hong Kong-born Anna Lo, said she felt endangered by growing racial intolerance on the streets.
"What sort of place do we now live in?" said Lo, 63, pausing to choke back tears. "Ethnic minorities have been attacked. I feel vulnerable that when I walk down the street I might be attacked."
Northern Ireland police reported this month that racially-motivated crimes have risen 47 percent in the past year. Police and politicians pin most blame on an outlawed Protestant gang, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Police hate-crime statistics, http://bit.ly/1tTG7bP