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Judgment reserved over preacher in 'satanic Islam' sermon

Published 16/12/2015

Pastor James McConnell said he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims

Judgment has been reserved in the trial of a Protestant evangelical preacher accused of making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.

Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, was prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act over a sermon in which he branded Islam "heathen", "satanic" and a "doctrine spawned in hell".

District Judge Liam McNally told Belfast Magistrates' Court : "We have come to the end of an interesting three days.

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

McConnell faced 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 - over the comments made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on May 18 2014. He denied both alleged offences.

The judge said he was "anxious" to deliver a verdict early in the new year and set a deadline of January 5.

Addressing the courtroom which was filled to capacity with born again Christian supporters, Judge McNally said: "I want to wish you all a happy and holy Christmas."

In his closing submissions, prosecutor David Russell QC said it was a "straightforward" case.

The pastor was "not on trial for his beliefs" but for what he said and using words which were allegedly "grossly offensive", the court heard.

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

"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 the Whitewell Tabernacle and watched by another 700 online on May 18 2014.

In it McConnell also said he did not trust Muslims.

Urging the court to find the pastor not guilty, a defence lawyer described 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".

Philip Mateer QC 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.

Earlier, during an appearance in the witness box which lasted more than an hour, McConnell said he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims.

He said: "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.

"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 McConnell was initially questioned by police about a potential hate crime. It was a year later when 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, McConnell 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 emerged.

East Antrim Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, missionary Jason Allen and Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty entered the witness box to defend McConnell's character.

However, a defence application to hear from Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a London-based imam and academic, was refused.

During his brief session, Mr Wilson, a member of Whitewell Tabernacle for more than 30 years, said: "One of the attractive features of his preaching is that there is no ambiguity in what he says because it is said, not just with force but also with compassion.

"He believes he's preaching truths which are eternal truths which will have a huge impact on people's lives."

Fr McCafferty, who grew up in the shadow of McConnell's tabernacle, said while they differed on theological matters, the pair were friends.

"I can say that Pastor McConnell has no hatred for anyone whatsoever and the people of his church are not people who go out in this community and cause trouble, they are the exact opposite."

The case, which has received global attention, was heard in one of Belfast's biggest courtrooms on the fourth floor of the Laganside complex normally reserved for Crown Court cases.

The 100-seat public gallery was packed to capacity with Christian supporters who had been warned to keep quiet as the hearing opened.

Judge McNally said: "Keep views to yourself so I can fully concentrate on the pastor's evidence and do justice to his defence."

Throughout proceedings McConnell, who was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and purple tie, sat alongside family members including his wife Margaret in the body of the court .

He became a born-again Christian after being orphaned at the age of eight, gave his first sermon aged 13 and went into the ministry at 17, it was revealed.

His congregation contributes £10,000 a month for missionaries in Kenya and Ethiopia, the court heard.

Outside, McConnell expressed relief that the trial had concluded.

He said: "It has been fair. The prosecution has been fair, everybody has been fair.

"I can't wait now to January 5. I want to see the outcome. I want to win."

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