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'Satanic sermon' trial pastor McConnell 'can't wait to take stand'

Judge rules pastor does have a case to answer over comments on Islam

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 16/12/2015

Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda

An evangelical preacher on trial over an anti-Islamic sermon says he is looking forward to giving evidence when he takes the witness stand today.

Pastor James McConnell added that he couldn't wait to have his views heard in open court.

The high-profile case will enter its third day after defence lawyers failed in a bid to have it thrown out. And as he left court yesterday evening, Pastor McConnell ended speculation over whether he would be giving evidence.

"Yes, I'll be taking the stand tomorrow," he said.

The 78-year-old said he was looking forward to testifying, adding: "Very much so - this is what I've always wanted."

He said he was satisfied with the progress of the trial.

"It has been fair right through - very good, and the papers have been great. The media has been good," he added.

Pastor McConnell is facing two charges linked to a sermon delivered at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May, 2014. He branded Islam "heathen" and "satanic" and said he did not trust Muslims.

He was charged with two offences under the Communications Act 2003. Day two of his trial was dominated by several hours of complex legal argument about whether the case should be dismissed.

Defence barrister Philip Mateer said he believed his client had no case to answer.

He cited several cases, including that of a Northern Ireland man convicted over a joke Twitter message in which he threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster after his flight was delayed by snow.

After the conviction was successfully challenged, the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidelines on the "chill factor" created when legislative proceedings are brought against individuals where it touches on their right to freedom of expression.

Mr Mateer said it was "beyond doubt" that his client had shown genuine remorse.

"You can't have watched or listened to something as genuine as those repeated remarks by the pastor in every interview, taking the opportunity to say that if he had offended he apologised," he said.

Hinting at Pastor McConnell's deep faith in Jesus, the barrister continued: "I don't think there is anyone - other than one person who the pastor would quickly remind me of - who has not committed some fault in life.

"We are human, we are all fallible, we are all capable of making genuine mistakes."

He said Pastor McConnell was not holding any Muslim in Northern Ireland accountable for the actions of "madmen" such as those who murdered on the streets of Paris.

"That is not what he said," the barrister continued.

Mr Mateer said the sermon was not intended for a wide audience.

"The pastor was in his own pulpit, in the church that he and his congregation built with their own money, and was preaching to those people and broadcasting the sermon on the internet," he added.

The intended audience were not Muslims who may be sensitive to criticism, he explained.

He said the pastor had a right to manifest his religion.

District Judge Liam McNally questioned, hypothetically, if someone from the Islamic Centre had said Christianity was heathen and satanic, and that Christians could not be trusted, whether it would be considered grossly offensive.

"I don't think it is," Mr Mateer replied.

Prosecuting counsel David Russell said the case centred on whether a reasonable member of society could find the words Pastor McConnell used offensive.

"It is not whether he has caused gross offence to a member of the community at which it was aimed but whether a reasonable member of society judges that it would cause gross offence," he said.

Mr Russell added: "It seems to me these comments fall clearly in line with being capable of being grossly offensive."

Judge McNally said he was not convinced by defence arguments that there were no circumstances under which the preacher could be convicted.

"I reject the defence application and I hold that Pastor McConnell does have a case to answer in relation to the charges against him," he said.

The case continues.

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