'Satanic Islam' case prosecutors in dock after pastor Pastor James McConnell found not guilty
Prosecutors have come under fire after an evangelical preacher was cleared of charges linked to an anti-Islamic sermon.
The Public Prosecution Service is facing growing calls to explain why it dragged Pastor James McConnell to court in a case estimated to have cost the public purse up to £50,000.
The 78-year-old walked free yesterday after a judge found him not guilty of two offences linked to an address delivered at his north Belfast church in May 2014.
He had described Islam as "heathen" and "Satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in Hell", and said he did not trust Muslims.
Yesterday a judge said that while he considered the remarks offensive, they were not "grossly" offensive under the law.
Speaking afterwards Pastor McConnell said the case should never have got to court.
And last night there was growing criticism of the PPS over its handling of the case.
TUV leader Jim Allister, a barrister, said Barra McGrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions, should be ashamed.
"This was an unnecessary and vindictive prosecution which the PPS should never have brought," he said.
Pastor McConnell, from Shore Road in Newtownabbey, strongly criticised the Islamic faith in the internet-broadcast sermon delivered from the pulpit of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.
He was charged with two offences under the Communications Act 2003.
Pastor McConnell later apologised following a public outcry.
He was questioned by police at the time, however last June it emerged he would face prosecution.
The three-day trial took place last month.
But yesterday a judge said the remarks did not meet "the high threshold of being 'grossly offensive'."
District Judge Liam McNally said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise 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."
Outside court the pastor said the case should never have reached this stage.
"It should never have been brought to court," he said.
Pastor McConnell felt justice had been done, adding: "I'm not against any Muslim in this country, and I want to make that absolutely clear.
"When I preached that sermon I wasn't against any Muslim. I was against the theology of the Muslims - against what they believe in."
Pastor McConnell is believed to be the first evangelical Christian pastor in the UK to face charges linked to remarks in a sermon.
However, he said there could be more cases in the future.
"I'm afraid so, and I appeal to every servant of God out there that they will have courage and stand up and preach the Word of God," he said.
"They need to do that because they will gag us and tell us to shut up, and we can't shut up."
As Pastor McConnell left court the PPS was facing growing criticism.
Mr Allister said lessons must be learned.
"This was an audacious attempt by the PPS to severely curb the foundational right of freedom of expression by bringing censure to the pulpit," he added.
"I am glad that the meddling of the PPS suffered the rebuff of acquittal and trust they will learn from the experience.
"While Islamist extremists, it seems, can do and say as they like in the UK, a Christian preacher was hounded through the courts for daring to speak his mind. The DPP should be ashamed."
DUP MLA Edwin Poots said the prosecution was not in the public interest.
"The Public Prosecution Service, which has an amazingly high bar for prosecuting criminals and terrorists, should hang their heads in shame," he said.
"They pursued a man almost 80 years of age who had serious health issues zealously and brought charges which didn't stand up."
DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who appeared as a character witness for Pastor McConnell, said he "should never have been in court in the first place".
He told the BBC: "We live in a free society and in a free society people should be free to express the beliefs that they hold."
Peter Lynas from the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland said the verdict was "a victory for common sense and freedom of speech".
The Belfast Islamic Centre said the Muslim community in Northern Ireland believed in the freedom of expression, but added that "insulting other faiths and beliefs" led to "disunity and mistrust".
"Although we disagree with the description of Pastor McConnell's remarks as 'not grossly offensive', we have always been ready to implement the values of forgiveness and pardon as a way forward," it said in a statement.
A PPS spokesperson said: "This case was brought by the PPS because of the characterisation by Pastor McConnell of all Muslims as potential terrorists by virtue of their faith.
"The court has decided that while offensive this comment, in the context in which it was made, did not reach the grossly offensive threshold required by law for a criminal conviction."