DUBLIN - Northern Ireland's Protestant leader retreated last week from anti-Muslim comments he made when defending a Belfast evangelist's right to denounce Islam.

"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 intended 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 "ongoing 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 original sermon and Robinson's words of support for the evangelist. McConnell told his congregation May 18 that Islam was "a doctrine spawned in hell" and that Muslim immigrants to Britain ran terrorist cells nationwide.

Robinson, who has attended McConnell's church, offered support both for the preacher's right to speak and the sentiments expressed.

Many branded Robinson's comments as racist and patronizing.