Pastor McConnell: I started getting death threats - someone sent a black rose with a note saying 'your time will come'
In the first of our exclusive extracts from Pastor James McConnell's autobiography, he talks about the 18-month battle to uphold his beliefs
I was sitting at my desk one Tuesday morning, talking to some of my men in the church, when the phone rang. "Pastor McConnell?" a voice inquired. "Yes?" I replied. "I'm ringing from the BBC. Did you say you don't trust Muslims?"
I was shocked by this question and wondered where this had suddenly come from. I replied: "No, I did not!" As the conversation continued, the penny dropped. I had preached that previous Sunday night on Sharia law. I told him that I had no problem with Muslims, but I don't agree with their theology.
I said: "I am against their theology, but I am not against them. I don't hate anybody. I wouldn't hurt a hair on their heads, but I feel their theology is devilish and is from the pit."
Not long after the call, I spoke to Stephen Nolan and he sounded so angry. Apparently, some Muslims had heard my sermon online and Dr Al-Wazzan, the leader of the Belfast Islamic Centre, had condemned it.
Over the next month, I appeared on the radio three times with him, live on air. I was in the papers for the next 28 days. I was on television for a total of three hours. I had preached that particular sermon some years back and I felt the Lord saying to me to look over the notes as he wanted me to take up that rein again. I felt compelled to do so.
On the previous occasion when I preached that sermon, there was not even a ripple of discord. But this time it sparked major controversy.
I lost friendships through it, including two good friends whom I loved. The supposed controversy in the sermon was a result of my description of Islam, which I described as "heathen" and "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell". In my sermon, I also pointed out that I did not trust Muslims, but I was referring to those who practice Sharia law. I couldn't believe the trouble that was caused over five words of dialogue.
The police came to see me and questioned me about what had been said. I told them that the whole thing had been taken too far and that they were trying to infuse into me political correctness. I had a bad feeling about the whole situation. Just before I had spoken with the police, I was tipped off by a news reporter that he'd heard that there was someone out to destroy me. He tried to investigate it, but all the doors were shut on him.
Some months later, I was asked to attend Whiteabbey police station. I was advised by friends to get a solicitor, so I hired Joe Rice and I couldn't commend him highly enough.
He sat with me the whole time in the police station. We were taken into an interview room and everything I said was recorded. There were three police officers interviewing me. They didn't explain to me why I was there - they just started questioning me if I trusted Muslims.
They talked about a crime of hatred. It made no sense to me. How could I hate Muslims when I am sending thousands of pounds every month to feed them in Africa? It was ludicrous, ridiculous.
They kept me over two hours. Then they released me and I heard no more until a year later, when they arrived at my home with a summons. I knew they would be in contact again, though, as there was a storm brewing.
I started receiving death threats. The police rang me one day at home and told me to be careful. The police officer told me to be wary of where I was going and what I was doing. In other words, he told me to watch my back.
Someone sent a package to the church for me. My secretary opened it and inside was a black rose with a note saying, "Your time will come".
I was in court on seven occasions and each time the case was dismissed due to lack of information on their part. I was continually brought back, which showed the weakness of their argument.
The media twisted my words and said I was against all Muslims. A priest who had lodged objections to a rally which I organised for west Belfast a few years previously, Fr Pat McCafferty, testified for me in court. He had initially accused me of holding anti-Catholic views. But he told them that I was honourable and I didn't hate anybody.
I was due to appear at Laganside Magistrates Court from December 14-16, 2015, to answer to the Public Prosecution Service for my remarks.
A year before, I had been accused of this "hate" crime. I was given a so-called "informed" warning, but I refused to accept it, because what I said I believed - and I believed it was right.
Under questioning by a defence barrister, I gave my reasons for refusing this lesser punishment. I said accepting it would leave me gagged. It was time to stand up and be counted. I knew it would be a test case. If the prosecution won, then they would succeed in curtailing every word preached from the pulpit and the very prayers prayed in church. I was conscious that our beloved Northern Ireland would turn into a police state. I said, no matter what religion you are, whether you are a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, you have a right to free speech and the right to worship.
I was adamant that, if the judge fined me, I would not pay it and I told the congregation in the church that nobody was to pay the fine for me. I told them it was a matter of principle.
I knew that paying a fine would be an admission of guilt and I was an innocent man. I knew at the time that refusing a fine could mean imprisonment, but I was prepared for it.
I imagined life in prison. I planned to pack all my belongings and use my time to minister to the inmates. I was always willing to go to jail for my beliefs.
The entire case took 18 months from beginning to end. The trial lasted three days. The verdict was delivered almost a month later, on January 4, 2016. On the day of the verdict, I broke out in shingles. I wasn't nervous and I didn't have one sleepless night during the court process, but, subconsciously, I must have been under strain. I was really itchy and, by 4pm that day, I was covered.
When I was questioned in Laganside Court about the devil and his existence and where he lives, the judge jokingly asked me if I was looking towards the prosecution as I was answering. There were some light-hearted moments during the trial, but the best part was that the people in court - the public gallery, lawyers and the judge - had to listen to the entire service, singing and everything.
District Judge Liam McNally spent an hour summarising the case and I was apprehensive at first, because I heard a couple of the pastors beside me saying the verdict might go against me. We broke for lunch and the general mood was not good. But in my heart, I felt God giving me peace.
Then the words were delivered. The judge said twice: "I find him not guilty." District Judge McNally said that, while he considered the remarks to be offensive, he did not consider them grossly offensive under the law.
His exact words were: "The courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech, which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances. Accordingly, I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges."
Applause rang out around Belfast Magistrates Court as the verdict was delivered and I shook hands with my defence lawyers. We left the court and outside there were crowds of journalists waiting on me. A large crowd sang hymns and cheered. I said: "Justice has been done."
Afterwards, we went out for a meal and I ordered stew, but I couldn't eat it as I was too excited.
I felt this experience was part of my ministry. This is what it should be. There are hundreds of preachers in the comfort zone. They aren't fighting the devil - they are fighting men. Our government in Northern Ireland has failed in their responsibility to protect the very standard the country was founded on, which is freedom.
We are now told what to say, how to say it, what to do - to the point of how to do it. If we don't do it, it is classed as hatred.
The courts never saved me. They never stood up for me. In fact, if truth be told, they failed me and will fail you, as freedom is being dismantled all around us and we, the Church, are sound asleep.
Are we seriously so blinded that we cannot see? Our right of freedom to say No has been taken away from us. Yet, are you aware, once you take away choice, you take away freedom? Scripture says: "Choose you this day whom ye will serve?" (Joshua 24:15).
If we were created as robots, we would never have been given choice by God. Listen carefully: God never created robots, that was man. God created the human soul and He teaches us through His word how to make good choices for the purpose of our soul.
We must change our ways, as it is written: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3).
As the end of the world closes in, God is going to release the "body of Christ" into boldness. There will be a moving of the spirit and thousands will be saved at any one time. In fact, as I write this book, I have just heard that more than 3,000 souls were saved in Pakistan.
Can I hear an Amen?
The Good, the Bad and Jesus Christ by Pastor James McConnell is published by Maurice Wylie Media. It will be launched at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on Wednesday (October 12) at 8pm with a live interview on Revelation TV (Freesat channel 692, Freeview HD channel 250 and Sky channel 581)