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Bid to throw out preacher's 'anti-Islam' charges rejected

Published 15/12/2015

Pastor James McConnell is being prosecuted over a speech he made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Tabernacle in north Belfast
Pastor James McConnell is being prosecuted over a speech he made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Tabernacle in north Belfast

The trial of an evangelical Christian preacher accused of insulting Islam is set to continue after a judge rejected an application to have the case thrown out of court.

Pastor James McConnell has been charged in connection with a controversial speech made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Tabernacle in north Belfast last May.

McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted at Belfast Magistrates' Court under the 2003 Communications Act.

District Judge Liam McNally said he was not convinced by defence arguments that there were no circumstances under which the preacher could be convicted.

The judge said: "I reject the defence application and I hold that Pastor McConnell does have a case to answer in relation to the charges against him."

Three days have been set aside for the high profile trial which is scheduled to conclude on Wednesday.

McConnell is facing two charges - 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 - after the remarks were streamed online. He denies both charges.

East Antrim Democratic Unionist MP and former Stormont finance minister Sammy Wilson, catholic priest Fr Patrick McCafferty and London-based imam Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini may be called as defence witnesses.

However, there has been no confirmation that McConnell will take the stand.

The judge said: "If so, we will hear from Pastor McConnell first and hear from the others with my consent."

The second day of the case was dominated by legal argument after d efence barrister Philip Mateer QC lodged an application to have proceedings halted.

He argued McConnell had no case to answer and that human rights legislation protected speech which was well received and popular as well as remarks that were offensive and shocking.

The lawyer said McConnell had expressed genuine remorse for any offence he may have unwittingly caused and had not endorsed violence.

He could not be held accountable for the actions of "mad men" who smash windows in Belfast or who murder on the streets of Paris, the court heard.

Mr Mateer said: "Freedom of speech is an important principle in our society and we are entitled to manifest our religious belief, be that Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist or whatever."

The barrister also argued that the sermon should be considered within the context of an hour-long religious service themed on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

On Monday the judge was shown a DVD recording of the entire service which included gospel singing, prayers and scripture readings.

In the sermon, which was delivered towards the end of the service, McConnell told the congregation of up to 2,000 people and 700 others who were watching online: "Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."

He also said he did not trust Muslims.

The comments were unscripted and made as the pastor walked about his large pulpit, Mr Mateer said.

"He is not stereotyping a whole religion, he is talking about cells of people," the defence barrister said.

"If the pastor was more astute to the watery words to be used to weave our way through difficult areas... i t would have put it beyond doubt if he had said there are 'cells' of jihadists."

Throughout the proceedings, McConnell, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and blue polka-dot tie, sat listening intently beside family members including his wife Margaret.

The non jury trial is being held in one of Belfast's biggest courtrooms, normally reserved for crown court cases at the city's Laganside complex.

The public gallery was packed to capacity and outside some born-again Christians displayed banners pledging support for the pastor, but the turnout was significantly lower than previous hearings.

David Russell, for the Public Prosecution Service, said the case centred on whether a reasonable member of society could find the words offensive.

He said: "It is not whether he has caused gross offence to a member of the community at which it was aimed but whether a reasonable member of society judges that it would cause gross offence."

The prosecutor added that transmission of the sermon online meant it had gone to the "widest possible audience".

Mr Russell said: "It seems to me these comments fall clearly in line with being capable of being grossly offensive."

Afterwards, McConnell said he was looking forward to giving evidence and paid tribute to his supporters.

He said: "It was a difficult day but there is another day tomorrow. Yes, I will be taking the stand.

"It has been fair right through. Very good.

"I have a great congregation. A congregation that I have known for years, grew up with me, love me, so they'll be hear tomorrow."

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