Northern Ireland's Equality Commission has expressed concern at remarks by Stormont's First Minister defending a controversial evangelical preacher who said he did not trust Muslims.

Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson, who has attended Pastor James McConnell's church in Belfast, said he supported his right to criticise the Islamic faith.

Police are currently investigating the contentious sermon made by the pastor earlier this month to see if its contents constituted a hate crime.

Mr McConnell, who is a fundamentalist Protestant preacher at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in north Belfast, branded Islam a heathen doctrine during a fiery address.

"People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don't trust them," he said.

"Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."

Mr Robinson insisted claiming not to trust a section of society was not a hate crime.

He added: "If it is then I'm going straight away to the police to ask them to take action against all those who say they don't trust politicians."

The controversy has erupted at a time when race hate attacks in Northern Ireland are on the increase.

The commission, which monitors compliance with equality legislation in Northern Ireland, criticised the pastor's sermon and expressed concern at Mr Robinson's intervention.

Chief Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said: "Commissioners have expressed their dismay at the remarks by Pastor McConnell. Comments which negatively stereotype entire communities are unacceptable.

"They have also expressed their concern at the intervention of the First Minister.

"It is incumbent on all leaders in public life to demonstrate in what they say, and what they do not say, a real and true respect for all human beings."

It continued: "We have seen an alarming increase in race attacks across our community over a relatively short period. Everyone who lives in Northern Ireland has a right to peace of mind, to feel safe in their own homes and to be seen as equals."

"We consider that those in a leadership role have a particular responsibility to uphold respect for others and promote good relations across and within our communities.

"That means moving beyond a simple condemnation of violence, important as that may be.

"Those in a position to influence others should not use language which may increase the vulnerability and legitimate fears of people who already feel isolated and under attack because of their race and religion."

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who has already accused the pastor of hate-mongering, earlier told his partner in government to show some leadership.

"All of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to represent and stand up for all the people of our society," he said.

"We have a duty to promote equality, mutual respect and tolerance for all in our society based on the core principles contained in the Good Friday Agreement."

That prompted a heated reply from Mr Robinson, who hit back on Twitter, stating: "I won't take lectures from a self-confessed leader of a bloody terrorist organisation on equality, tolerance and mutual respect for all."

Mr Robinson, in an interview with the Irish News, insisted the pastor did not have "an ounce of hatred" in his body.

He said a Christian minister had a right to "denounce false doctrines".

The DUP leader added that he would not trust Muslims for spiritual guidance, or those engaged in terrorist acts, but would trust Muslims to "go down the shops for me".

Mr McGuinness called on Mr Robinson to step out of his own political constituency and represent all the community.

"We must recognise and embrace the social, cultural and religious diversity of our society," he said.

"I value the diversity and multicultural nature of our society, the significant and valuable contribution the Muslim community makes to this society daily.

"There is a real need for all of us in positions of responsibility to step out of our own political constituencies and religious groupings and show genuine political leadership for all."

During his contentious sermon, Pastor McConnell told worshippers that former Conservative MP Enoch Powell, whose 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech criticised immigration, was right.

"Enoch Powell was a prophet, he called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened."