An evangelical Christian pastor in Northern Ireland is being prosecuted for making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.
James McConnell, 78, is facing up to six months in prison for delivering a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic." The message was streamed live on the Internet, and a Muslim group called the police to complain.
According to Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service (PPS), McConnell violated the 2003 Communications Act by "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive."
Observers say that McConnell's prosecution is one of a growing number of examples in which British authorities — who routinely ignore incendiary speech by Muslim extremists — are using hate speech laws to silence Christians.
McConnell, who turned down an offer to avoid a trial, says the issue of Christians being singled out for persecution in Britain must be confronted, and that he intends to turn his case into a milestone trial "in defense of freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
The controversy began on the evening of Sunday, May 18, 2014, when McConnell, the founding pastor of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, an evangelical mega-church in northern Belfast, preached a sermon on a foundational verse of the Christian Bible, 1 Timothy 2:5, which states: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."
Preaching with an oratorical flourish common to traditional Protestantism, McConnell said (sermon begins at 22m, 40s):
"For there is one God. Think about that. For there is one God. But what God is [the Apostle] Paul referring to? What God is he talking about? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"The God who we worship and serve this evening is not Allah. The Muslim God, Allah, is a heathen deity. Allah is a cruel deity. Allah is a demon deity. A deity that this foolish government of ours ... pays homage to, and subscribes financial inducements to curry their favor to keep them happy....
"While in Muslim lands Christians are persecuted for their faith; their homes burned, their churches destroyed, and hundreds of them literally have given their lives for Christ in martyrdom. A lovely young [Sudanese] woman by the name of Miriam, 27 years-of-age, because she has accepted Christ as her Savior, will be flogged publicly and hanged publicly. These fanatical worshippers are worshippers of the god called Allah. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a fact and it cannot be denied and it cannot be refuted.
"I know the time will come in this land ... and in this nation to say such things will be an offense to the law. It would be reckoned erroneous, unpatriotic. But I am in good company, the company of [Protestant Reformers] Luther and Knox and Calvin and Tyndale and Latimer and Cranmer and Wesley and Spurgeon and such like him.
"The Muslim religion was created many hundreds of years after Christ. Mohammed, was born in 570. But Muslims believe that Islam is the true religion, dating back to Adam, and that the biblical Patriarchs were all Muslims, including Noah and Abraham and Moses, and even our Lord Jesus Christ.
"To judge by some of what I have heard in the past few months, you would think that Islam was little more than a variation of Christianity and Judaism. Not so. Islam's ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell."
McConnell's comments about Islam comprised less than ten minutes of a 35-minute sermon that focused on Christian theology.
The blowback was as swift as it was predictable. The Belfast Islamic Center, which claims to represent all of the 4,000 Muslims thought to be living in Northern Ireland, complained to police, who dutifully launched an investigation into whether there was a "hate crime motive" behind McConnell's remarks.
McConnell later issued a public apology, but he refused to recant. He also rejected a so-called informed warning. Such warnings are not convictions, but they are recorded on a person's criminal record for 12 months. Anyone who refuses to accept the warning can be prosecuted, and McConnell now faces six months in prison. The first hearing of his case is set for August 6.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, McConnell said he would rather go to prison than disavow his comments about Islam.
"I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me. They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time.
"I have no regrets about what I said. I do not hate Muslims, but I denounce Islam as a doctrine and I make no apologies for that. I will be pleading 'not guilty' when I stand in the dock in August.
McConnell said that the charges against him were symbolic of the persecution Christians are facing in Britain today:
"It is a case of back to the future. In the first century, the apostles were jailed for preaching the gospel. Early Christians were boiled in oil, burnt at the stake and devoured by wild beasts. If they faced that and kept their faith, I can easily do six months in jail."
McConnell's attorney, Joe Rice, vowed to fight the case "tooth and nail." He said:
"I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If we're moving into a genuinely pluralist society, these freedoms must be extended to Christians as much as they are to others."
After public prosecutors announced that they plan to call eight witnesses in McConnell's prosecution, Rice said:
"Rest assured we will call many, many more. This will be a landmark case with leading political, religious and academic figures giving evidence.
"The logic of the decision to prosecute Pastor McConnell means that many clerics — including Catholic priests and other evangelical pastors — could now find themselves under investigation for preaching with passion.
"My client's remarks weren't addressed at individual Muslims but at Islam in generic terms."
McConnell stressed that he does not hate Muslims. "My church funds medical care for 1,200 Muslim children in Kenya and Ethiopia," he said. "I've no hatred in my heart for Muslims, but I won't be stopped from preaching against Islam." He added:
"I apologized last year if I had unintentionally hurt anyone's feelings. I would defend the right of any Muslim cleric to preach against me or Christianity. I most certainly don't want any Muslim clerics prosecuted but I find it very unfair that I'm the only preacher facing prosecution."
In an interview with the Guardian, McConnell reiterated that he is "not going to be gagged." He said:
"The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach. It's ridiculous. I believe in freedom of speech. I'm going to keep on preaching the gospel. I have nothing against Muslims, I have never hated Muslims, I have never hated anyone. But I am against what Muslims believe. They have the right to say what they believe in and I have a right to say what I believe."
The executive director of the Belfast Islamic Center, Raied al-Wazzan, is leading the push to prosecute McConnell. "This is inflammatory language and it definitely is not acceptable," he said in an interview with the BBC.
Al-Wazzan is now trying to leverage the controversy over McConnell's remarks to shame local politicians into providing him with public land, for free, to build a mega-mosque in Belfast. "We need the land from the government," he told the BBC. "And there is a huge demand for it. The Muslim population is growing in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, but especially in south Belfast."
In January 2015, al-Wazzan drew attention to himself when he praised the Islamic State's rule of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where jihadists have killed or expelled all of the city's 2,000-year-old, 60,000-strong Christian community. Speaking to the BBC, al-Wazzan said: "Since the Islamic State took over, it [Mosul] has become the most peaceful city in the world."
After local politicians called for the government to cut public funding for the Belfast Islamic Center, al-Wazzan recanted. But the Belfast Islamic Center's website continues to prominently display the writings of a Muslim extremist named Bilal Philips, who has been banned from entering the UK because of his preaching of violence against Jews, Christians and homosexuals, and his glorification of Islamic suicide bombers.
McConnell summed it up this way: "Islam is allowed to come to this country, Islam is allowed to worship in this country, Islam is allowed to preach in this country and they preach hate. And for years we are not allowed to give a tract out, we are not allowed in Islam, we are not allowed to preach the gospel. We are persecuted in Islam if we stand for Jesus Christ."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.