Islam storm pastor James McConnell retires after 57 years, but insists it's nothing to do with remarks
Firebrand preacher James McConnell has stepped down after 57 years of ministry, insisting his retirement is not connected to the controversy surrounding his comments about Islam.
Pastor James McConnell announced his "immediate retirement" from the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in a statement read to his congregation last night.
He said: "This past 18 months I have fought with myself what to do regarding my leadership in Whitewell, and now I feel the hour is come to completely hand over the reins to Pastor David Purse and all the pastors who assist him."
The 77-year-old began the church with just 10 members in a rented Orange hall in 1957.
Earlier this year the minister, who has suffered a number of health problems, was embroiled in controversy over comments he made in a sermon about Islam.
He made headlines across the world when he slammed the Islamic faith as "Satanic" and a "doctrine spawned in Hell".
The Belfast Telegraph first revealed in May that Pastor McConnell said: "Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell."
He said his remarks were inspired by hearing the story of pregnant woman Meriam Yehya Ibrahim (26), who was sentenced to death in Sudan after refusing to recant her Christian beliefs.
She was later released.
The PSNI then investigated a possible hate crime in relation to the comments which sparked anger in the Muslim and wider community and which Pastor McConnell later apologised for.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night he said the controversy had nothing to do with his decision.
He said: "Not in the least. In fact the response I received regarding the controversy was over 20,000 letters, emails, everything from all over the world. It was fantastic the support I got.
"That decision has been in the making for the past 18 months, it was just when to do this and they pleaded with me to stay on but it's time for me to give this younger man a chance."
He added: "(I have) no regrets whatsoever. I took my stand."
Pastor McConnell added: "I still believe that radical Muslim ideology and doctrine poses a huge threat to this country and to the world."
In the statement the church said that while the retirement may seem sudden, Pastor McConnell did not want a long drawn-out period of time between his announcement and his retirement.
Looking to the future the pastor said: "To withdraw myself is not easy, but it is most necessary to give Pastor David Purse every chance to exercise his ministry and to feel his liberty to do what he believes God wants him to accomplish."
In reaction to the news DUP councillor Guy Spence tweeted: "An end of an era; Pastor McConnell has retired at @whitewellchurch you've been a great blessing to me! #ThankYou."
Story so far
In the past three years Pastor McConnell (77) suffered a number of health setbacks, including a major heart-attack and subsequent quadruple-bypass operation and was diagnosed two years ago with prostate cancer. First minister Peter Robinson backed Mr McConnell during the Islam row and was heavily criticised for comments of his own but later visited Islamic leaders to apologise.