Belfast pastor James McConnell not guilty: 'I want to assure Muslims I love them, what I am against is their theology'
Pastor McConnell said justice has been done after he was cleared in court
Pastor James McConnell today declared that justice had been done after he was cleared of charges linked to an anti-Islamic sermon.
The evangelical preacher walked free from court after being acquitted of both counts by a judge in Belfast.
Outside court he said: “I am very happy that there is liberty to preach the gospel.”
<< Scroll down for PPS statement on the verdict>>
The 78-year-old had been accused of two offences linked to an address delivered at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May 2014.
A judge said that while he considered the remarks offensive, he did not consider them "grossly" offensive under the law.
District judge Liam McNally said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive.
"It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.
"Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges."
There was applause at Belfast Magistrates Court as the verdict was delivered.
Pastor McConnell smiled before walking over to shake hands with his defence lawyers.
Outside court, a large crowd sang hymns as he emerged.
Pastor McConnell said justice had been done.
His solicitor Joe Rice added: “You can only expect justice in the next world … on this occasion the law and justice have come together.”
Pastor McConnell said that while he would repeat his message in the future, he would word his comments differently because he was conscious he might hurt ordinary Muslims.
He said his only regret was the response from the Muslim community that he was "out to hurt them".
"There was no way I was out to hurt them - I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head", he said.
"But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in.
"If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs I am totally against them."
He added: "I would do it again but I would word it differently because I would be conscious I was hurting innocent Muslims, I would be conscious I was hurting Muslims who have come here to work hard and are doing their best - there's no way I would hurt those people, but I would do it again, yes."
The pastor said he did not realise how far his sermon would travel.
"As far as I was concerned I was preaching to my own people, I was preaching in my own church - I didn't realise it would go out there and so forth," he said.
Pastor McConnell also said he believed he had said "worse things" in other sermons that had been streamed online.
A spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service said the case was brought because of the "characterisation by Pastor McConnell of all Muslims as potential terrorists by virtue of their faith".
In a statement it said: "The court has decided that while offensive this comment, in the context in which it was made, did not reach the grossly offensive threshold required by law for a criminal conviction.
“It is clear from the judgement that the court considered Pastor McConnell had a case to answer and that the decision on whether the comment was offensive or grossly offensive was not only finely balanced but one for the court and the court alone to take.
“It is not the role of the public prosecutor to usurp the function of the court. The decision to bring this prosecution was entirely consistent with the duty of the PPS to put before the court those cases in which it is considered there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction.”
Pastor McConnell, from Shore Road in Newtownabbey, had faced two charges linked to the sermon delivered from the pulpit of his North Belfast church on May 18 2014.
He was charged under the Communications Act 2003.
Pastor McConnell was accused of improper use of a public electronic communications network, and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.
In the internet-broadcast sermon the preacher described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell”.
He also said he did not trust Muslims.
Pastor McConnell later apologised following a public outcry.
He was questioned by police at the time, however, last June it emerged he would be prosecuted.
The three-day trial took place last month.
A prosecution lawyer had argued Pastor McConnell’s comments were not "a slip of the tongue”.
He said the pastor was "not on trial for his beliefs", but for what he said and using words that were allegedly grossly offensive.
However, a defence lawyer said the case essentially revolved around five words in an hour-long religious service.
He said the pastor was a man with an unblemished record who should be recognised for his good work in society, not convicted in court.
Judgement had been reserved until today.
Ulster Unionist Party
Part of the price we all pay for living in a democracy is that we will hear things that we may judge offensive and that is the case in this instance, as the judge has made clear in his ruling.
People must be free to express themselves robustly, particularly in matters of faith, but we would urge the avoidance of unnecessary offence. Northern Ireland needs to be able to respect diversity whilst allowing those who hold deep religious convictions to express them within the law.
Presbyterian Church 'The right to express a point of view in a public setting, or in the public square, including the liberty to express strongly held beliefs, is one of the marks of a healthy democracy'
Dr. Norman Hamilton, Convenor of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: "“As a church we are increasingly troubled that the state is seeking to limit freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience in the interests of political correctness. It is essential that the Christian church and all Christian people are at the forefront of promoting such freedoms for the benefit of every citizen, as far as they are consistent with the building of a genuinely free and pluralist society.
“At the same time, whether our outlook on life is shaped by a faith-based perspective, or none at all, for us all to live in a peaceful and cohesive democratic society, there will always be self-imposed parameters that support important freedoms such as the rights of free speech and of free assembly.
“In this there is a profound tension, especially in a global and social media-driven age. The law must properly value and protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression, while at the same time protecting each of us from unacceptable abuse.”
Pastor McConnell vows he won't pay any court fine if convicted
By Suzanne Breen
Pastor James McConnell has vowed that he won't pay any court fine if he is convicted today over controversial comments he made about Islam - a stance that could see him sent to jail.
The firebrand preacher said he remained optimistic that he would be acquitted but pledged that should he be found guilty he would refuse to pay any fine imposed by the judge.
The public gallery of Belfast Magistrates Court will be packed as Judge Liam McNally delivers his verdict today.
The pastor is charged with grossly offending Islam after branding the religion "heathen" and "Satanic" at a sermon in his Belfast Metropolitan Tabernacle church in 2014.
Last night, a defiant Pastor McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph: "If the judge imposes a fine, then I won't be paying it and I don't want anybody else to pay it on my behalf either.
"It's a matter of principle. Paying a fine would be an admission of guilt and I have said from the beginning that I am an innocent man. I know that not paying a fine means that people eventually end up in jail and I am prepared to accept that."
The 78-year-old Christian preacher said that while he didn't want to go to prison, he wouldn't be backing down. "I have said from the beginning of all this that I am willing to go to jail for my beliefs and that is still the case. I'm not going to start running scared at this late stage.
"I don't want to sit in a prison cell but I'd rather do time than pay a fine for something that I don't believe is a crime."
Pastor McConnell said that he "felt sorry" for Judge McNally.
"He is in a very tricky position. This case is a hot potato. If he finds me guilty, he will have all the evangelicals in the country against him," he said.
"If he acquits me, people will say that the case was a terrible waste of taxpayers' money. They'd be right to say that. My prosecution took 18 months and this is my seventh time in court.
"The public funds that have been used to pursue me would have been put to far better use in hospitals or schools."
The pastor said he would bear "no ill-will" towards the judge if he convicted him. "He treated me very well in the court and made many witty remarks. When I was being questioned about the Devil, he jokingly asked me if I was looking towards the prosecution as I was answering," he said.
While Pastor McConnell denounced the Public Prosecution Service's decision to charge him, he said that prosecuting counsel had treated him with "professionalism, courtesy and fairness" throughout the trial.
"The best bit for me was when they played my sermon in court," he said. "The clip with the controversial comments was only 35 seconds long but they played the full hour-and-a-half sermon. I was delighted. I don't think I converted anybody in court but at least they all had to listen to the gospel."
The pastor said he wasn't nervous as he awaited the verdict. "I am in the Lord's hands now. Those who made the decision to prosecute me may have thought I'd buckle under the pressure but I haven't, though the trial has been hard on my wife Margaret. She tries to keep it from me but I know she has found it stressful."
DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who will accompany Pastor McConnell to court today, said: "I hope the judgment will reflect common sense. There are preachers, politicians, comedians, and journalists who say things which some people may object to but that's part of a free society.
"If we start eroding people's ability to do that you will have a chill factor with individuals frightened to air their views in case they end up in the dock. I hope that is foremost in the judge's mind when he delivers his verdict."