IAN Paisley was close to death last year, his son has revealed.
The Democratic Unionist leader spent 10 days in hospital last August undergoing tests for an undisclosed illness - rumoured to be either prostate cancer or a leaking heart valve.
Dr Paisley (79) and his family have always refused to discuss the nature of his medical problems or his condition.
They played down speculation about his health at the time by saying that he had only been admitted to hospital for "routine medical tests" and they were not "unduly alarmed" or worried.
But his son, the Rev Kyle Paisley, a minister in his father's fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, has now revealed that the North Antrim MP nearly died from his illness last year.
Kyle made the revelation as he introduced Dr Paisley to his 100-strong congregation at a service on Saturday last to mark his 14th year as minister of his own church in Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, Suffolk.
Dr Paisley preaches at the church every year - but was unable to visit last summer because of his illness. His son told worshippers at his church: "This is a special service for me in as much as this time last year my father was very, very ill.
"He said he was at death's door and it was a very trying and testing time for him and my Mum and all our family.
"But you prayed for him. I believe that he was saved because people prayed for him. He still has God's work to do and is looking ten years younger."
Mr Paisley (38) refused to comment further about his father's health. He would only say: "We have not really said anything about it. The family has never given any details because we feel it should be kept private.
"But he definitely was seriously ill last year and he did use the phrase that he had been at death's door when he attended a service recently in Chelmsford in Essex," he explained.
Speculation about the state of Dr Paisley's health has increased in recent years as he has reduced his workload and his number of public appearances.
Last year he decided not to contest his seat in the European Parliament elections after 25 years as an MEP - but he insisted he had no plans to step down as DUP leader and head of the Free Presbyterian Church.
Dr Paisley blamed "Romanists" in the media for spreading lies about his health last year. In an article last September that appeared in his church magazine the Revivalist, he claimed he was now "wonderfully healed".
He added: "I'm not walking along death's shadows anymore. I feel absolutely great. I know I have something else to do for my Lord down here and I want to do it with all my heart and mind."
Dr Paisley, who was banned from flying by his doctors last year, was able to joke about the state of his health with his son's congregation in Suffolk.
He said: "I feel in perfect health. In fact I feel a little too well sometimes and I have to say to myself, 'You are no longer 15 - you are in your 80th year and you have to be careful'.
"What keeps me going is I have a message that transformed my own life. God has given me a job to do. I believe I have work to do," he went on to explain.
Asked afterwards if he was ready to finally retire, he said: "But what would I do - I still have work to do."