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Muslim leaders urge pastor to attend Belfast anti-racism rally

Published 07/06/2014

John Manley Political Reporter




MUSLIM community leaders in Belfast have urged controversial preacher James McConnell to join an anti-racism rally in the city today.

Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre said the pastor's attendance would show he was genuinely remorseful over comments he made about Islam during a sermon at Whitewell metropolitan Tabernacle last month.

Pastor McConnell yesterday issued a statement in which he apologised for any distress he may have "unwittingly" caused. It came as he was interviewed by police for two hours about the sermon in which he described Islam as "satanic" and "heathen". Solicitor Joe Rice, who spoke on Pastor McConnell's behalf when he emerged from Newtownabbey PSNI station at lunchtime, said the preacher attended the interview voluntarily.

First minister Peter Robinson's defence of Pastor mcConnell's comments last week prompted a storm of criticism and made headline news across the world. The DUP leader later met the north's muslim leaders and apologised for any offence he may have caused. In a statement posted on the Whitewell metropolitan Tabernacle website yesterday morning, the pastor said he had not intended to cause offence or insult any member of the muslim community.

"My sermon was drawing attention to how many followers of Islam have, regrettably, interpreted the doctrine of Islam as justification for violence," Pastor McConnell said.

"I have qualified my comments by reference to those who use their religion as justification for violence. As a preacher of the word of God, it is this interpretation of the doctrine of Islam which i am condemning."

He said he believed in free speech and freedom of religion, and would welcome the opportunity to follow in mr Robinson's footsteps by visiting the Belfast Islamic Centre.

But asked outside the police station yesterday, if his comments about Islam were wrong, Pastor McConnell replied "No".

His statement was welcomed by the Islamic centre's spokesman Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who said he hoped to welcome Pastor mcConnell in the near future.

Dr Al-Wazzan said he accepted the apology but hoped the pastor could make further gestures to build relations with the muslim community.

"As a muslim, if somebody makes and mistake and says sorry we accept that apology," he said.

"But the pastor now needs to show he is truly remorseful."

He added that the pastor could show solidarity with muslims by attending today's anti-racism rally in Belfast.

"it would great if he could show up at tomorrow's rally," Dr Al-Wazzan said. "That would go a long way to helping heal the damage that has been done by his attack on Islam."

The pastor was last night unavailable for comment.

His apology was welcomed by Deputy First minister martin mcGuinness, who had previously branded the sermon "hate-mongering".

"i had previously stated that such an apology would be appropriate given the offence recent words had caused," the mid ulster MLA said.

"Our ethnic minorities enrich our community and contribute to it in many ways. They must be valued and we should now renew our efforts to promote equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all." SDLP leader Alasdair mcDonnell said: "it is right for those who have caused hurt and distress to apologise and try to reconcile with those who have been affected.

"I have been struck by the generosity of the Islamic community over the past number of days which has been in sharp contrast to the way in which they were initially treated."

An ulster unionist spokesman said the party welcomed the fact that those who expressed "intolerant, un-British views" had retreated from their positions.