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It's not only Pastor McConnell in the dock, freedom of speech is there as well


Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

A 78-year-old evangelical Christian preacher is an unlikely poster boy for freedom of speech but, make no mistake about it, that's exactly what Pastor James McConnell is.

Today is the first step in an outrageous odyssey through the legal system that could see the pastor sentenced to six months in jail.

His "crime" is to have made "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam. He branded it "heathen" and "Satanic" in a sermon to his own followers last year.

As an atheist, I carry no candle for Christian fundamentalists, but there is something seriously wrong in hauling a pensioner pastor in ill-health through the courts for simply expressing his opinion.

Let's get this straight. James McConnell didn't incite hatred or encourage violence against any Muslim.

Had he done so, I'd be first in the queue to denounce him.

He simply expressed his views about another religion.

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Freedom of speech should mean that he has every right to lambast Islam, as Islamic clerics have to lambast him and Christianity if they so choose.

Those who disagree with Pastor McConnell should challenge him and attempt to win the debate, rather than close it down.

Freedom of speech isn't only for polite persons of mild disposition airing their views within Government-policed parameters.

It's about letting awkward, insulting, and even offensive voices be heard too.

In the face of a Draconian response from the State, the pastor's reaction has been inspirational.

He declined the offer of an "informed warning" from police - something Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly accepted after an incident involving a PSNI Land Rover in north Belfast in 2013.

The pastor is refusing to sign any document declaring guilt.

"I am 78 years of age.

"I have had four heart bypasses, a liver operation and I have cancer and diabetes, but jail knows no fear for me," he has asserted.

"They can lock me up with sex offenders and paramilitaries and I will do my time.

"I won't be withdrawing what I said and I make no apologies for my beliefs."

A septuagenarian, so spirited and defiant in the face of such an onslaught, surely deserves the support of all of us who respect the rights of freedom of expression.

And yet the silence from civil liberties and human rights organisations here has been deafening.

In Britain, the National Secular Society and liberal Islamic scholars have voiced their support for the pastor. World famous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins has also raised the case on social media. But in Northern Ireland there hasn't been a squeak out of the liberal left.

Don't expect them to join Christian protesters outside Belfast's Laganside court today.

Their progressive pieties don't extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.

Shame on them for either sitting on the fence or being on the wrong side of it. In any democracy worth its salt, freedom of speech isn't a luxury for your friends, it's a necessity for your enemies.

Defending Pastor McConnell's right to say what he said doesn't mean approving or embracing his sentiments.

The hypocrisy at the heart of this case is that the chief prosecution witness is Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who is hardly the man to point the finger at anybody over controversial comments.

Last year Dr Al-Wazzan praised Islamic State, which has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, as a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.

He later retracted the remarks after public outrage.

Given his own outburst, I don't know how Dr Al-Wazzan has the nerve to denounce Pastor McConnell and demand that he be gagged.

He is certainly in no moral position to take the stand in court and give evidence against another cleric about airing extremist opinions.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has some nerve in calling him.

The fact that Dr Al-Wazzan will be in the witness box, and not in the dock himself, reinforces Christians' belief it is they alone who are being victimised and persecuted in our society.

I don't subscribe to that view, but it certainly smacks of double standards.

That is when a Christian fundamentalist feels the full force of the law yet the State sees and hears no evil when other religious figures are involved.

Freedom of speech must never be smothered in the name of cultural diversity.

True tolerance permits dissent.

At a time when the PPS has so much on its plate and resources are stretched, it defies belief that pursuing Pastor McConnell using public funds is a priority.

Anyone with any sense in the PPS will drop this case before it reaches a full hearing later this year.

And anyone with any real commitment to freedom of speech will be raising their voice in support of Pastor McConnell until this pantomime of a prosecution finally ceases.

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