Pastor McConnell's declaration that he doesn't trust Muslims was 'grossly offensive', court hears
A DVD recording of the church service at the centre of the case was played to the court
An evangelical Belfast preacher was grossly offensive in making a pulpit declaration that he doesn't trust a single Muslim, a court heard today.
Prosecutors claimed Pastor James McConnell's "unrepentant" characterisation of an entire religion has no legal protection.
The 78-year-old clergyman has gone on trial over the contents of an internet-broadcast sermon were he branded Islam "satanic" and "heathen".
More than 100 of his supporters packed a public gallery at Belfast Magistrates' Court for the start of the hearing.
The preacher denies 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.
Both charges centre on comments made at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast in May last year.
He defended his views at the time but following a public outcry he later apologised for any offence or distress caused.
As the case opened defence barrister Philip Mateer QC called on the prosecution to identify the specific alleged offence.
He said: "My client should not be at the start of his trial in a state of mystification as to precisely what it is within the sermon that's supposed to be criminal."
Prompted by District Judge Liam McNally, prosecution counsel David Russell claimed the clergyman had made remarks aggravated by hostility.
He pointed to portions of the sermon where Pastor McConnell referred to Allah as a "heathen", "cruel" and "demon" deity.
According to Mr Russell a minister is entitled to speak in those "trenchant terms" during the course of a service.
The defendant is protected under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights covering freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression, he accepted.
Mr Russell acknowledged: "This is a man who has served his church all his life, who has a deep and honestly held faith, one he expresses and is entitled to express openly and to demonstrate those properly religious views he holds."
He argued that the alleged offences came later on in the sermon.
When the preacher stated "Islam is heathen... Islam is satanic... Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell" his views are protected by Articles 9 and 10, the prosecutor said.
But those comments, he contended, formed part of the context for other remarks.
The court heard how Pastor McConnell declared: "People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don't trust them."
Mr Russell contended those remarks were central to the case against him.
"He's saying 'I don't trust a single Muslim'," the barrister claimed.
As the allegation was made against the preacher he shouted out from a back row of Courtroom 12: "No."
However, prosecution counsel continued: "He characterised the followers of an entire religion in a certain stereotypical way, that is grossly offensive and that is not protected by saying it from the pulpit.
"It wouldn't be protected whether it was said about members of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, Protestants, Catholics or members of the Muslim faith.
"That is the portion that is grossly offensive. It has nothing to do with his freedom of expression or his freedom to preach."
Mr Russell claimed the defendant repeated his views days later in an appearance on BBC Northern Ireland's Nolan Show.
Unlike the sermon streamed over the internet, the preacher cannot be prosecuted for remarks made on television.
But Mr Russell argued that the interview showed no change in view.
"He's unrepentant in this," the barrister added.
"The decision to prosecute is proportionate and necessary within the terms of the legislation."
Amid opening legal exchanges Mr Mateer claimed his client has been charged on the basis of a limited remark.
"This prosecution is founded entirely on five words," he suggested.
A DVD recording of the church service at the centre of the case was played to the court.
Some of Pastor McConnell's Christian supporters applauded and quietly sang along as the gospel hymns were relayed.
Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson was among those present to back the defendant.
It was confirmed by a detective sergeant who questioned the clergyman that he consistently stressed he never intended to stir up hatred towards anyone.
The court was told the Pastor visited one Muslim home subjected to a potential race hate attack and paid for damage to windows.
Under cross-examination the detective agreed that it was for individual citizens to decide who they trust.
Asked what issue he took with the Pastor expressing his view on the subject, the officer replied: "I think it's the people who trust him who are the issue.
"The Pastor is a very influential man, and people listen to his words. Therefore because people trust the Pastor they will take his words very carefully."
But Mr Mateer responded: "He simply says what his position is and uses the word 'I'. He doesn't say any further than that."
The court also heard how the detective believed remarks comparing the activities of Muslim "cells" in Britain to past IRA terror units were inflammatory.
Defence counsel put it to him, however, that it was right to use the phrase to describe Islamic extremists plotting to bomb and murder.
"What's emotive or inflammatory about a true statement such as that?" Mr Mateer asked.
"If he had been talking about radicalised Muslims or Islamists he's entirely correct about that."
The trial continues tomorrow (Tuesday) when the prosecution is expected to answer a query from the judge about why it took more than a year to charge Pastor McConnell.