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Hundreds of supporters gather to cheer controversial cleric James McConnell


A section of Pastor McConnell’s supporters outside the courthouse

A section of Pastor McConnell’s supporters outside the courthouse

Photopress Belfast

A section of Pastor McConnell’s supporters outside the courthouse

The public gallery of court number nine can seat about 20 people.

By the time Pastor James McConnell's case was called, more than 500 supporters were queued at the door.

And a similar number were waiting on the street outside, some clutching placards and banners in support of the evangelical preacher.

Even for a building used to high profile criminal trials, it was an extraordinary morning. But then this is no ordinary case.

At its heart is the question of freedom of speech, a very basic right of any democratic society.

Pastor McConnell arrived about an hour before his case was scheduled to open, and was warmly applauded as he edged through the crowd.

Stopping at the entrance, he smiled broadly and posed for photographs.

Accompanied by supporters, he then made his way inside and up to court number nine, on the second floor of the vast building.

The public gallery was already full as the pastor, dressed smartly in a navy suit, entered the room.

One man had to leave to ensure he could be seated, second from the right of the back row, just behind his wife, Margaret.

The case had been due to begin at 10.30am, with district judge Amanda Henderson keen to hear it immediately because of the growing crowd outside.

However, difficulties locating the prosecutor meant there was a short delay.

Questioned on the whereabouts of the missing official, an exasperated member of court staff remarked: "There are a lot of people outside."

"Yes, but not the prosecutor," the judge replied.

The case, when the prosecutor was finally located and the hearing got under way, lasted around seven minutes.

Because the prosecution was brought by summons, Pastor McConnell was not required to enter the dock.

He remained seated in the public gallery, appearing relaxed but listening carefully, as his solicitor outlined their intention.

"We are pleading not guilty - a very candid not guilty," Joe Rice said.

It was, he continued, one of the most bizarre and peculiar cases ever to come before the courts.

Acknowledging the vast number of supporters, Mr Rice said further hearings should be held in a larger courtroom.

At times the pastor, now 78 and in declining health, leaned forward to hear what was being said. District judge Amanda Henderson relisted the case for September 3.

As he left the courtroom, Pastor McConnell was greeted by loud cheers and applause.

He briefly addressed supporters gathered in the corridor, waiting for news.

"We are back on September 3, and my solicitor has done a wonderful job," he said, before turning to leave.

The crowd followed, spilling outside, where Pastor McConnell was greeted by more supporters, including DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

There were loud cheers as the pastor approached, waving and raising his thumb.

Supporters clutched banners reading 'Christianity under persecution' and 'Evil Sharia Law is not welcome in our country'.

Pastor McConnell made his way through the crowd to a set of microphones, where he struck a defiant tone during an impromptu press conference.

To loud cheers he declared: "I will not go back on what I have preached."

At one stage he gave thanks to God for the weather, remarking: "He kept the rain off."

Referring to the case, he said there had been anger over his prosecution. "Even from atheists, even from people who don't go to church. They say this is ridiculous, and it is ridiculous, it is absolutely stupid," he said.

Patted on the back by a supporter, the pastor continued: "I'll see you all on the third of September."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson criticised the pastor's prosecution.

"People should have the right to express what they believe without fear of prosecution," he said. "Here's a man who passionately believes something, who says what he believes and who has been prosecuted for it because there is a narrow, politically correct Taliban who want to corral us all into thinking, saying, speaking as they believe we should. If we allow that to happen then I think we'll be a poorer society."

As Pastor McConnell walked away, the crowd broke out into a hymn, raising their voices in support of his claim on freedom of speech.

Belfast Telegraph