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Defiant Pastor James McConnell repeats that he doesn't trust Muslims

By Rebecca Black

Published 17/12/2015

Pastor James McConnell outside the courthouse
Pastor James McConnell outside the courthouse
Pastor James McConnell with Sammy Wilson

An evangelical preacher must wait until the new year to learn his fate after being accused of making "grossly offensive" comments about Islam.

In court yesterday Pastor James McConnell repeated his claim that he did not trust Muslims. The remark came on the final day of a landmark trial into comments he made 19 months ago.

The three-day hearing finished yesterday, with Judge Liam McNally telling the court he plans to consider the evidence he has heard and aims to deliver a judgment on Tuesday, January 5.

"We have come to the end of an interesting three days," he said.

"I am going to reserve my judgment. I want to consider all the points raised in submissions."

Speaking outside court, Pastor McConnell said he felt the hearing had been even-handed.

"It has been fair. The prosecution has been fair, everybody has been fair," he said. "I can't wait now to January 5. I want to see the outcome. I want to win."

Pastor McConnell, who is the retired head of Whitewell Tabernacle, one of the largest evangelical congregations in Northern Ireland, is facing two charges linked to a sermon delivered in May 2014.

He branded Islam as "heathen" and "Satanic" and said he did not trust Muslims.

He was charged with two offences under the Communications Act 2003 - 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.

He denied both charges.

The prosecution set out its case on Monday, while Tuesday was dominated by legal arguments as the pastor's defence team argued the case should be thrown out.

Yesterday the court heard Pastor McConnell's defence. The first witness to take the stand was the pastor himself, in an evidence session that lasted over an hour.

He told the court he did not trust a "majority of Muslims" because of Sharia law.

He was asked by prosecuting barrister David Russell which Muslims he excluded when he referred to a "majority".

Pastor McConnell replied: "I don't know."

Mr Russell pointed out a quote from an interview the pastor gave to the Stephen Nolan Show, where he said: "I don't trust them."

Pastor McConnell again said: "Because of their Sharia law."

The judge later clarified: "You do trust a minority of Muslims?"

"Of course, yes," Pastor McConnell responded.

"Those that don't subscribe to Sharia law, you trust them," the judge probed further, to which Pastor McConnell agreed.

The pastor earlier told the court that he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims.

"I had never any intention whatsoever of hurting any one of them and I can say that before the judge and before the Almighty God," he said. "It never entered my head that someone would take me up on that. I was preaching this in the confines of my own church. There are Muslims there who know me and understand me. It never entered my head."

The pastor also outlined his reasons for refusing the lesser punishment of an informed warning.

He said: "If I took that, it would be an insult to the One that I love, for I was standing up for Him, for His Gospel and for His truth. If I took that informed warning, that would be me gagged.

"I will take my stand, no matter what happens here today."

The court heard that Pastor McConnell was initially questioned by police about a potential hate crime.

It was a year later that officers issued a summons for him to be prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act, he said.

"Now, a year later, I am issued with this summons, the Communications Act, which is absolutely ridiculous," he added.

In the wake of the controversy, the preacher visited two men believed to have been the victims of a race-hate crime and gave them £100 to repair broken windows in their home, it was stated in court.

The court also heard from three character witnesses - East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson, Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty and missionary Jason Allen.

Summing up, prosecutor Mr Russell said it was a "straightforward" case. He told the court the pastor was "not on trial for his beliefs" but for what he said and using words which were allegedly "grossly offensive".

"He is preaching a sermon, he is instructing, he is wishing people to listen," he said.

"There is clear evidence that he intended to use those words. They were not a slip of the tongue.

"It is a straightforward case."

The contentious sermon was delivered to a congregation of 2,000 people at Whitewell and watched by 700 online on May 18, 2014.

Defence barrister Philip Mateer urged the court to find the pastor not guilty, describing him as a man of "superlative good character" who helped drug addicts and other "down and outs" that "watery, middle class clergymen" might consider as "untouchables".

Mr Mateer argued that although he was "unrepentant" for preaching the gospel, McConnell was sorry for any offence his words may have caused, adding that trust was something to be built up over time.

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