Under fire Northern Ireland leader Peter Robinson apologised in private to Muslims for making controversial remarks about Islam – after stating he would not say sorry.

First Minister Robinson issued the apology to Muslim leaders in the country during a behind-closed doors meeting at an Islamic Centre.

It came after Robinson spent days under mounting pressure over comments in which he said he did not trust Muslims to give him religious advice – but would be okay with them "going down the shops" for him.

Northern Ireland's top politician told the Belfast Telegraph: "I wouldn't trust Muslims who are following Sharia Law to the letter and neither would he [Pastor James McConnell]. However, as I have said in many of the normal day activities of life, I would have no difficulty in trusting Muslims to go down to the shops for me."

Robinson said later the outburst had been "misinterpreted" as he defied calls to apologise publically.

But Belfast Islamic Centre (BIC) spokesman Dr Raied Al-Wazzan revealed an apology was forthcoming, after Muslim leaders informed Robinson of how they felt about his remarks.

Dr Al-Wazzan said: "We have told him what we felt.

"We accepted the apology in private in private and for us that was a sincere apology and we accepted it."

The storm blew up after Robinson publically supported an evangelical pastor who claimed: "Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell." Pastor James McConnell is currently being investigated by the police and could yet be charged with a hate crime.

The Democratic Unionist Party confirmed the meeting took place. A spokesman said: "Mr Robinson outlined his views and made it clear that there was never any intention on his part to offend or cause distress to anyone.

"He said that if anyone interpreted his remarks in that way that he would apologise 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 claimed he backed Pastor McConnell on free speech grounds. "I defend people's right, whether they are from the Protestant faith, the Catholic faith or Muslim faith, to be able to comment and, if they feel it necessary, to criticise other doctrines," he said.

"It would be a lack of freedoms if we were not allowing people to do so."