Belfast Telegraph

If Pastor James McConnell was feeling under strain, he certainly wasn't showing it yesterday morning

By Chris Kilpatrick

A Storm had raged around their church and its leader throughout the previous week. While Pastor James McConnell was on the receiving end of stinging criticism on the back of his anti-Islamic remarks, it was clear he still has the backing of those who turned out to hear him preach yesterday morning.

More than 1,500 people were present at the impressive church on Belfast's Shore Road for the Sunday morning service.

Those heading into the church politely declined to comment on the controversy which dominated news reports throughout last week.

Inside the mood was relaxed and inviting, several people approaching me to shake hands and issue a welcome to their church.

Born in 1938 and having preached from the age of 17, Pastor McConnell has more than five decades of ministerial experience.

He began giving his sermons in an Orange Hall before establishing the Whitewell movement which quickly attracted a large congregation.

To meet the demand, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was set up in 1994 and is now one of Northern Ireland's largest churches.

It counts leading politicians amongst its ranks and was previously attended by First Minister Peter Robinson and his wife Iris.

The evangelical church has a modern feel to it; services are streamed live online, the interior is bright and vibrant and, rather than Bibles, another pastor quoted scripture using an iPad.

Aged 75, Pastor McConnell has missed just two services in more than 50 years – most recently in 2011 when he suffered a heart attack.

If he was feeling any strain from the criticism he had received for his scathing criticism of Islam, he certainly wasn't showing it yesterday.

He briefly referred to the fall-out from his remarks at the end of his service. To applause, he told journalists outside the church they would be sorely disappointed if they were looking for a story.

The pastor said his message would not be silenced "by the powers of darkness".

Of his detractors, he said: "Away and build something and then tell me you don't agree with me. I'll listen to you. I'll say there's a man who built something who's criticising me so I'm going to listen to him.

"If you've not built anything, don't you come near me."

Outside the confines of the church, the fall-out from Mr McConnell's controversial claims continues, including an ongoing police investigation.

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