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Satanic Islam sermon cleric's trial an extraordinary day of hymns, applause and even a few laughs

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 15/12/2015

The preacher talks to the media outside court
The preacher talks to the media outside court
Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini (left) and Father Patrick McCafferty (centre)
Pastor McConnell’s daughters Julie and Linda with his wife Margaret
Some of Pastor McConnell’s supporters display a banner

An hour into the opening day of the Pastor James McConnell trial and the sound of gospel singing filled court number 12.

The chatter of legal argument had fallen silent as the packed room gazed towards the television screens.

Eyes were fixed on a recording of the May 2014 service from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle which led to this landmark case. The entire 75-minute event, including supporting prayers, Bible readings and singing, was replayed to the court.

Many of the 100-plus supporters packed into the public gallery gently clapped and mouthed the words to the hymns.

Even for seasoned legal observers, it was an extraordinary morning.

But then this is no ordinary case. At its heart are basic issues of freedom of speech and religious belief. The case has drawn attention from far beyond the confines of the Shore Road in north Belfast where Pastor McConnell preaches.

So great is the public interest that it is being heard in court 12, a room normally reserved for crown matters because it has a greater capacity.

Yesterday, the gallery was almost full an hour before the case was due to begin.

By the time prosecuting lawyer David Russell rose to his feet to open proceedings, every seat had been taken. Pastor McConnell, smartly dressed in a navy suit, white shirt and purple tie, sat beside his wife Margaret and other family members.

Earlier, arriving at court, Pastor McConnell told the media he was feeling confident.

He added: "It's a good day for a hanging - particularly to hang the prosecution."

After posing briefly for photographs, he was cheered as he made his way to a group of supporters clutching a large banner at the entrance to the court.

It quoted a verse from Psalm 105: "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm."

A few minutes earlier, court staff had tried - unsuccessfully - to move them on.

One of the group explained: "They tried to get us to move away but we said we weren't going anywhere."

The crowd was much smaller than most expected.

At his first hearing, almost 1,000 people gathered inside and outside the court.

Barely a fifth of that number turned up yesterday.

There was applause as Pastor McConnell entered the courtroom, by now filled with supporters.

Making his way through the room, he stopped to greet people.

Spotting DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who will give evidence in his defence, he shook his hand and embraced him warmly.

Mr Wilson took his seat alongside Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a prominent Muslim academic.

Shaking his hand, he could be heard congratulating Dr Al-Hussaini on the courage he had shown in agreeing to give evidence.

At one point, a clip of the contentious sermon was played by staff testing the video system - drawing applause from the gallery.

Once proceedings opened, defence barrister Philip Mateer QC queried exactly what the pastor had said to cause such offence.

He briefly paused, wondering could he be heard in the public gallery without shouting.

"Pretend you're preaching," district judge Liam McNally told him, drawing laughs and a smattering of applause.

Opening his case, prosecution counsel David Russell explained Pastor McConnell was charged with two offences under the Communications Act 2003.

He proceeded to read extracts from the sermon delivered at Whitewell Tabernacle last May.

Mr Russell then referred to interviews the pastor had given to BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan in the days that followed.

He said Pastor McConnell's "unrepentant" characterisation of an entire religion had no legal protection.

Concluding, Mr Russell said the decision to prosecute was proportionate and necessary.

The first piece of evidence was a DVD recording of the service on May 18 last year.

Judge McNally questioned the necessity of playing the full recording, and suggested they move straight to the sermon.

Mr Mateer said Pastor McConnell's remarks had been made in the context of Christian worship.

The judge, who had a transcript of the service, said: "I know it's a church and it's a church sermon - I'm able to see that. But I don't have to listen to three sets of singing before I come to the point where Pastor McConnell begins his sermon."

When Mr Mateer attempted to press his case, Judge McNally responded wearily: "Fine - we'll listen to the whole service."

The recording began with prayers and several hymns.

In the public gallery, many supporters were softly singing and clapping. Finally, about 30 minutes in, the sermon began.

At times, Pastor McConnell leaned forward, resting his head on his arm, as he listened keenly.

During the sermon, he had warned that his comments might be taken out of context.

"I could be misunderstood tonight ... I probably will be," he had told his audience at Whitewell Tabernacle.

Nineteen months on, as he sat in a court to face trial over the remarks, he smiled, turned and shot a rueful glance at the public gallery.

Pastor McConnell continued to listen intently as the sermon turned to the issue of Islam and the comments that have landed him in trouble.

At one point, he had referred to the problems Christians face, telling worshippers that God had never lost a case.

This drew more applause in the public gallery.

As the sermon finished, the judge again intervened, noting that the rest of the service involved more hymn singing.

"I'm as keen as the next man on an uplifting tune, but the rest of this is another two songs," he added.

Mr Mateer indicated he would prefer the video was allowed to play on, as there was further material, including an altar call, that he wished the court to hear.

Judge McNally relented and the remaining footage was played. In total, the recording ran for around 75 minutes.

The court was then played footage of an interview Pastor McConnell gave to the Nolan TV show. After lunch, a recording of a separate interview on Nolan's radio show was played.

As the afternoon progressed, transcripts of Pastor McConnell's interview with police were read, before a further recording of an interview with Nolan.

As he left court shortly after 4pm, Pastor McConnell said he was satisfied with the case so far.

"It was a fair day and we will see what happens tomorrow," he added. "I'm looking forward to tomorrow, but I can say it was a fair day today, and we're fighting hard."

The case continues.

Belfast Telegraph

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