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Freedom to preach Gospel is fundamental to Christians

By Nelson McCausland

Many Christians in Ulster are coming to the view that their fundamental rights and religious liberties are coming under attack. They were alarmed by the prosecution of Daniel McArthur, owner of Ashers bakery, for refusing to do something that conflicted with his Christian beliefs about the nature of marriage. They wondered what would come next and they did not have long to wait.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has initiated the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell for comments that he made during a sermon that he preached at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle. The details of the case will emerge in due course, but newspaper reports indicate it is around his use of the words "heathen" and "Satanic" in relation to Islam.

It is worth noting that such words are not uncommon in Christian literature and communication. They appear in the writings of such notable figures as Bishop J C Ryle, the first Protestant Bishop of Liverpool, and the great Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon, as well as the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and many hundreds of other Christian writers and preachers.

Even more important and significant is the fact that Jesus Christ himself used such language during his Earthly ministry. He denounced false teachers and false teaching in what many today would regard as very strong language and, in John 8:44, 45, he said to some of his hearers: "Ye are of your father the devil." Yet he loved those to whom he referred and he loved them so much that he died for them.

The sermon preached by Pastor McConnell was broadcast over the internet and prosecution against him is being taken under the Communications Act 2003.

He is accused of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.

I have to confess that it is a piece of legislation with which I was previously unfamiliar. I suspect that is true for most people.

Is it that this was the only legislation under which the PPS felt they had case? Is it that, if he had preached the sermon in the church and had not placed it on the internet, he would not have been prosecuted? Is this an attempt to drive Christians off the internet?

It is encouraging that so many people have expressed their concern about these cases, even people of other faiths and no faith. They simply believe in such freedoms as freedom of speech, freedom to preach and freedom to manifest a religious belief.

So what is it that has driven the Equality Commission to take a case against Daniel McArthur and what has prompted the PPS, headed by Barra McGrory as Director of Public Prosecutions, to prosecute Pastor McConnell. Indeed, why did the PSNI investigate the sermon in the first place?

The concern of many of us is compounded by the fact that the PPS did not see fit to prosecute The Druids for their hate-filled rant at the Ardoyne Fleadh last summer. Such are the double standards of the PPS.

Moving further afield, Professor Richard Dawkins made a horrendous remark about children with Down's syndrome and the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle is notorious for his offensiveness. Yet there is no suggestion of legal action against either Dawkins, or Boyle.

Jesus warned his followers that they would face persecution and there are many countries where Christians suffer severe religious persecution under communist and Islamic regimes. Imprisonment, torture and death are the order of the day in those lands.

Thankfully, here in Ulster we still have a large measure of religious freedom, a freedom that was won at great cost, but there is a deep concern that it is being eroded.

Freedom of speech, including the freedom to preach the Christian Gospel, is a fundamental freedom, but it seems that this and other rights are under attack when they are exercised by Christians.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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