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Case against 'Satanic Islam' sermon Pastor James McConnell hangs on just five words, his QC tells Belfast hearing

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 15/12/2015

The preacher talks to the media outside court
The preacher talks to the media outside court
Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini (left) and Father Patrick McCafferty (centre)
Pastor McConnell’s daughters Julie and Linda with his wife Margaret
Some of Pastor McConnell’s supporters display a banner

An evangelical preacher remained defiant last night after going on trial on charges linked to an anti-Islamic sermon.

As he left Belfast Magistrates Court, Pastor James McConnell said his legal team was "fighting hard".

His comment came after the opening day of a landmark case connected to a controversial religious address he made at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle last year.

The 78-year-old branded Islam "heathen" and "satanic" in the sermon, which was streamed on the internet. He also told the congregation that he didn't trust Muslims.

Pastor McConnell denies two charges linked to breaches of the Communications Act 2003.

Yesterday, a prosecuting lawyer accused him of characterising the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way.

David Russell said the pastor's remarks were grossly offensive.

He defended the decision to prosecute the ageing preacher, who is in poor health, adding that it was proportionate and necessary.

Afterwards, Pastor McConnell said: "I'm looking forward to tomorrow but I can say it was a fair day today, and we're fighting hard."

Mr McConnell, from Shore Road, faces two charges linked to the speech made from the pulpit of his north Belfast church on May 18, 2014.

He is 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.

The charges relate to the internet-broadcast sermon in which he also described Islam as "a doctrine spawned in hell".

Pastor McConnell later apologised following a public outcry.

He was questioned by police at the time. Earlier this year it emerged he would be prosecuted.

More than 100 supporters packed into court 12 for the opening day of his trial yesterday.

Outlining the prosecution case, Mr Russell acknowledged Pastor McConnell's deep faith, saying: "This is a man who has served his church all his life."

Mr Russell said the pastor's description of Islam as "heathen" and "satanic" could be considered grossly offensive.

He noted Pastor McConnell was protected by Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which cover freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression.

However, he said they were part of the context of a comment made immediately beforehand, in which the pastor said: "People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don't trust them."

It is these remarks, the prosecutor added, that are central to the case: "He's saying, 'I don't trust a single Muslim' - that's what he says."

Pastor McConnell could be heard shouting "No".

Mr Russell continued: "We hear comment from behind us already on that, but that's the words that this man uses.

"He characterises the followers of an entire religion in a certain, stereotypical way, and that is grossly offensive, and that is not protected by saying it from the pulpit.

"It wouldn't be protected whether it was said about members of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, Protestants, Catholics or members of the Muslim faith.

"That is the portion, in the context of this sermon, that is grossly offensive.

"It has nothing to do with his freedom of expression or his freedom to preach."

Mr Russell referred to a number of interviews Pastor McConnell gave to BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan.

These, he added, confirmed there was "no accident" over the words spoken.

Mr Russell concluded: "The decision to prosecute is proportionate and necessary within the terms of the legislation."

Earlier, amid opening legal exchanges, defence barrister Philip Mateer QC claimed his client has been charged on the basis of a single remark. "This prosecution is founded entirely on five words," he claimed.

A DVD recording of the church service at the centre of the case was played to the court.

Later, District Judge Liam McNally was told that, in a prepared statement given to police during an interview, Pastor McConnell said he had not intended to cause offence, insult, arouse fear or stir up tension.

A detective sergeant who questioned the preacher said he had stressed he never intended to stir up hatred towards anyone.

The court was told Pastor McConnell visited one Muslim home subjected to a potential race hate attack and paid for the repair of damage to windows.

The case, which is expected to last three days, continues.

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