Prosecution of 'Satanic Islam' pastor James McConnell 'could have chilling effect on churches'
The prosecution of a controversial preacher who called Islam "satanic" in a sermon streamed live on the internet could have a chilling effect on other churches with an online ministry, it has been claimed.
Firebrand preacher Pastor James McConnell is accused of sending a "grossly offensive" communication under the Communications Act 2003.
Pastor McConnell, who ministers at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, has said he intends to plead not guilty to the charge. The 78-year-old is due to appear in court in August and has told the Belfast Telegraph that he has no regrets about what he said and is prepared to go to jail for it if necessary.
However, many other churches in Northern Ireland also use the internet as part of their ministry, often vital for those who are housebound and unable to make it to the service
But now they may now have to think again.
Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: "I don't agree with all that Pastor McConnell said, but I am deeply concerned about this prosecution for allegedly sending a message that is grossly offensive.
"Many churches will be wary of what they place on the internet until this case is heard and the law is clarified. This prosecution seems to stretch the Communications Act well beyond what parliament intended."
He said the prosecution could have a chilling effect on churches and other Christian organisations putting material online.
"I think churches will be concerned until this case is heard. It's so vague," he said.
"People will want to be cautious until they see what happens in court, until they get clarity.
"If this prosecution succeeds, it will cause massive ripples. It it fails, people will say, 'Why did this ever go to court? What were they thinking?'"
Rev Brian Lacey of St Peter's Church of Ireland parish church in north Belfast voiced concerns about comments being taken out of context.
"When I moved to St Peter's about two years ago I thought about putting sermons online but decided not to purely because the way sermons are going nowadays is that they're are much more interactive," he said.
"I also think there's a bit of an issue with words being misinterpreted or misunderstood. I sometimes change what I say as I go along; if somebody then got hold of the sermon they might read what I hadn't intended to say.
"It's a whole minefield and to me it's best that the people I'm preaching to are the people there in front of me, not people outside the doors and for that reason I wouldn't do it." A spokesman for the Presbyterian Church said: "Live streaming, along the posting of sermons on websites, is great way of enabling the Gospel of the Lord Jesus to be preached and heard outside the confines of a particular church."
He added that it was up to individual congregations about whether to make sermons available online so long as it's "in a way that is faithful to the word of God and in keeping with the law of the land".
A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor said it did not believe the prosecution would affect putting material online. "These are public presentations and it's important for us to act within the law. Priests are very conscious of the fact that they are preaching in a public forum," he said.
One ardent McConnell supporter, Free Presbyterian minister the Rev David McIlveen, said: "No church should be under any obligation or pressure to restrain or restrict the message that is coming from the pulpit and has come from that pulpit over many years.
"Whether we are from the Christian, Muslim or Jewish identity, I think all are subject to scrutiny and examination.
"If we cannot do that without fear of persecution or prosecution then I think we have really gone beyond the pale of civil and religious liberty. We are seeing this more of an attack upon the Christian faith."