Defiant 'Satanic Islam' case pastor feted like modern pop star and vows to keep on preaching Gospel
To the sound of cheers and gospel singing Pastor James McConnell left court number 13 vindicated and defiant.
Emerging into the cold and wet January morning, he was greeted by the flash of cameras and supporters' applause.
The welcome was more akin to that of a modern day pop star than an evangelical preacher battling old age and poor health.
But his improbable brush with the legal system, at the age of 78, has turned him into an unlikely poster boy for freedom of speech.
For more than six months this case has been a mere proxy battle in a far wider debate.
At its heart is the struggle between the right to freely express views and a growing move towards censorship.
When Pastor McConnell first set foot in court last August his defence team signalled their determination to fight the charges.
Freedom of expression, it was argued, should include the right to criticise other religions.
The pastor's "crime" - in the eyes of the now chastened PPS - was to have made "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.
The two charges were based on a single remark from Pastor McConnell that he did not trust Muslims. Those five words, taken from an hour-long Christian service, resulted in court proceedings that dragged on for nearly six months.
They finally ended shortly before 11am yesterday when a judge delivered his verdict.
It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances, District Judge Liam McNally told the packed courtroom.
There was warm applause from the 50-odd crowd who were packed into the public gallery. Many more congregated in the foyer outside.
Supporters, some from the pastor's Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle church, had been queuing since the building opened at 9am.
As they waited patiently outside court 13 a security guard joked that the hearing should be moved across the street to the Waterfront Hall to meet demand.
Pastor McConnell arrived shortly before 9.30am.
Smartly dressed in a charcoal-coloured suit, he was again accompanied by his wife Margaret and other family members.
He sat alongside them, outside the dock, in the main body of the courtroom.
It took less than 30 minutes for the judgment to be delivered.
Pastor McConnell sat with his hands clasped together, occasionally leaning forward as he listened intently.
As the not guilty verdicts were announced there was measured applause in the public gallery.
After shaking hands with his legal team, headed by defence barrister Philip Mateer QC, Pastor McConnell left court for the final time.
Outside, the pastor struck a defiant tone as he pledged that he would continue preaching the Gospel.
There was also a note of conciliation as he expressed regret that his comments had been misunderstood by some Muslims.
"There is no way that I was out to hurt them - I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head," he said.
Pastor McConnell also spoke of the wider ramifications of the verdict.
"I'm very happy, for the Gospel's sake, that there is liberty to preach the Gospel," he continued.
"If I'd been gagged here today every other servant of God would have been under observation as to what he says and what he does. I'm happy that freedom of speech is still held in this country."
Pastor McConnell said he felt justice had been done.
Defence solicitor Joe Rice agreed: "I'm a believer in justice, and you can only expect justice in the next world - I sound like the pastor - but on this occasion the law and justice have come together. This gentleman has taken a principled stand.
"He has carried the can for this to the detriment of his health for nearly two years, and he is to be congratulated.
"We are greatly relieved that justice has been done."
A short distance away a group of supporters sang hymns and waved banners.
Among them was Violet Massey from east Belfast, who is a long-time member of Whitewell Tabernacle.
She said: "I am absolutely delighted and I believe it is through much prayer.
"The judge is a very wise man.
"Pastor McConnell sticks to the Word of God. In trying times like these, you need that Word."
Rev Graham Middleton from Donaghadee Free Presbyterian Church, who was at court for most of the proceedings, also welcomed the verdict.
"It's the only verdict that there could be, because all he was doing was preaching the truth," he said.
"We should stick up for the Bible, and the Bible does make it clear that any other way that is not centred on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is false.
"As long as Pastor McConnell was preaching that, he was preaching the Scriptures, which is what we preach every Lord's Day."
Also present was Ruth Wilson, who said: "I am delighted that justice has been done and an important victory has been won for freedom of speech and religion."
At the outset of his now infamous sermon on May 18, 2014, Pastor McConnell had a warning for his congregation. He cautioned that his comments might be taken out of context, adding: "I could be misunderstood tonight... I probably will be."
But yesterday he stood vindicated, vowing to continue to deliver the Biblical teachings he has devoted his life to preaching.