'Satanic Islam' sermon pastor McConnell says BBC's Nolan should hand over his award for TV interview to him
'Jail doesn't scare me, but let me have Christmas at home,' says James McConnell
A firebrand preacher who goes on trial today for branding Islam "Satanic" says he is ready to go to jail for his beliefs - but hopes the court will first let him spend Christmas with his family.
In a hard-hitting interview from his Greenisland home, Pastor James McConnell said he had no regrets about his controversial comments and, even if jailed, would repeat them on release.
He said "freedom of speech and freedom of conscience" were at stake in the landmark trial. Hundreds of Pastor McConnell's supporters are expected to protest outside Belfast Magistrates Court as the case opens today.
"This is about Christians fighting back," the pastor said. "There is an agenda at work to restrict our rights while allowing followers of other religions to say and act as they please.
"My sermon was 45 minutes long. They took a 30 second clip from it, blew it out of all proportion, and began this legal charade at immense cost to the taxpayer. Well, enough is enough."
Pastor McConnell also insisted that while he opposed Islam vociferously, he didn't hate Muslims and hoped to "sit down and talk to them" after his trial.
He also expressed "disgust" at BBC broadcaster, Stephen Nolan, and called on him to hand over an award he had won for a TV interview with the Christian preacher following his controversial comments about Islam.
The pastor said: "Stephen Nolan won the Nick Clarke award for his interview with me. I put up his ratings and I deserve that award. Stephen should send it to me and do you know what I'll do with it? I'll tramp on it."
The preacher faces up to six months in jail if convicted over his sermon in the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle last year, in which he branded Islam as "heathen" and "Satanic".
He has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam. His sermon was streamed on the internet.
The case, which could last up to three days, will be heard by District Judge Liam McNally. Pastor McConnell will be represented by solicitor Joe Rice and Philip Mateer, QC.
The pastor said: "I won't be a bit nervous when I'm sitting in the dock. I want my day in court. I will be there in the name of the Lord. I've prayed and I am trusting in God. I don't know if I will be called to testify, but I very much hope I am.
"I'm ready to face justice, whatever way it turns out. Jail holds no fear for me, though I'd hope they wouldn't send me there until the New Year as I'd like to spend Christmas at home with my family. I'm not in the best of health. I've had four heart bypasses, a liver operation and I have cancer and diabetes. But if I have my tablets, reading glasses and some books in prison, I will be able to serve whatever sentence they give me."
The prosecution will call five witnesses, mostly police officers involved in the case. Notably, the Crown is not calling any of the four Muslims who contacted the PSNI to complain about the sermon.
The main prosecution witness was expected to be Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre. Seven months after he reported the pastor to the police, Dr Al-Wazzan was himself embroiled in controversy for praising the rule of Isis in Iraq.
The firebrand preacher said that while he opposed Islam, he bore no ill-feeling towards Muslims. "There are 3,000 Muslims in Northern Ireland and I wish them well," he said.
"I don't regret what I said but if I hurt the feelings of any individual Muslim, I apologise from the bottom of my heart. It was their doctrine, not them as human beings, I was critical of. I want every Muslim in Northern Ireland to know I'm not against them."