Pastor James McConnell solicitor argues preacher 'did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims'
Preacer vows to keep preaching that Islam is 'satanic'
A firebrand pastor who called Islam "heathen" and "satanic" today insisted he would continue to preach the same message.
Pastor James McConnell was speaking after appearing in court on charges linked to his controversial sermon.
There were chaotic scenes inside and outside Laganside court complex in Belfast, where more than 1,000 supporters gathered in a show of solidarity.
Addressing supporters outside the court, Pastor McConnell said: "I will not go back on what I preached."
To loud cheers from the crowd, the 78-year-old added: "I'm not guilty and I'm pleading not guilty.
"I want to be exonerated, I want acquitted, I want rid of all this.
"But as soon as I'm rid of all this I'll be preaching the same message."
Among the crowd were members of Pastor McConnell's church and DUP MP Sammy Wilson.
Pastor McConnell is facing charges over remarks made in an internet-broadcast sermon he delivered at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast on May 18 last year.
He said "a new evil had arisen" and "there are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain".
"Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell," he said at the time.
Pastor McConnell was later questioned by police about his remarks.
He issued a public apology for any offence caused.
However, earlier this year it emerged he would be prosecuted over the comments.
He is accused of improper use of a public electronic communications network, and causing a grossly offensive to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.
Addressing a packed courtroom this morning, Pastor McConnell's solicitor, Joe Rice, insisted: "He did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims.
"He simply expressed his view about another religion, not in a personalised manner but in an entirely generalised way.
"He believes freedom of speech - he's a member of the clergy in Northern Ireland - should mean he has every right to criticise Islam and other religions, just as Islamic clerics have the right to criticise him and Christian clerics."
Mr Rice told the court: "We are pleading not guilty - a very candid not guilty."
The solicitor also disclosed plans to mount an abuse of process application before any trial hearing.
He contended: "This is one of the most bizarre, peculiar cases I have ever seen before these courts."
Mr Rice insisted that an "avalanche of material, both public and legally", was available to show his client intention to contest the charges.
He pressed the prosecution to indicate if any of four main witnesses in the case where prepared to give evidence against the pastor.
In response a Public Prosecution Service lawyer said statements were given to police, with any further contact expected after the defendant's attitude is formally entered.
District judge Amanda Henderson was told how the defendant has been waiting for the chance to clear his name.
"This is a principled stand," Mr Rice added.
The case was adjourned to September 3.
More than 1,000 supporters had gathered inside and outside Laganside Court Complex.
Some held placards declaring 'Christianity under persecution' and 'Evil Sharia law is not welcome in our country'.
As he left the courtroom, Pastor McConnell was clapped and cheered.
Outside, more people waving banners applauded him loudly.
As he walked away, the crowd started to sing a hymn.
Among those outside court was Sammy Wilson, a friend of Pastor McConnell.
The East Antrim MP told the Belfast Telegraph: "People should have the right to express what they believe without fear of prosecution."
He added: "It has profound implications for society, and I believe that is why it is such an important case."
Previously the Public Prosecution Service has said that as Pastor McConnell had refused to accept an informed warning, he would be brought to court.
While an informed warning is not a conviction, it is recorded on a person's criminal record for 12 months.
Anyone who refuses to accept it can be prosecuted.