An evangelical Christian pastor in Northern Ireland has made his first court appearance after he was charged with making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.
James McConnell, 78, appeared at Laganside Magistrates Court in Belfast on August 6, after local Muslims complained that he delivered a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic."
According to Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service (PPS), McConnell — whose sermon was streamed live on the Internet — 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."
Pastor 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.
In what was described as an "extraordinary morning," more than 1,000 people appeared outside the courthouse singing hymns and waving placards — declaring "Christianity under persecution" and "Evil Sharia law is not welcome in our country" — in a mass show of solidarity for McConnell, who was cheered and applauded as he entered and exited the courthouse.
Inside the courtroom, McConnell's defense attorney, Joe Rice, told District Judge Amanda Henderson that his client was "strenuously" contesting the case. Rice said:
"We are pleading not guilty. Very candidly not guilty. This is one of the most bizarre and peculiar cases I have ever seen before the court.
"The Pastor has waited a long time for this to come to court. He did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims. He expressed views about another religion, not in a personalized manner but in a generalized way.
"He believes in the freedom of speech — he's a member of the clergy in Northern Ireland. He has every right to criticize Islam, as Islamic clerics have the right to entice him. This is a principled stance that the pastor has taken. This is not the PPS's finest hour, this case."
Rice called for the case to be moved to a larger courtroom:
"There are approximately 1,000 people here. Pastor McConnell is a revered pastor in the Greater Belfast area. He has family. He has friends. He has members of his congregation who want to hear this case."
Rice also told the judge that the defense team intended to lodge an abuse of process application to have the case thrown out of court.
"They were nervous in that court, very nervous. I thank God for my solicitor who presented a brilliant case. I will not go back on what I preached. I am not guilty.
"I want to be exonerated, I want to be acquitted, I want to be rid of all this. But when I am rid of all this I will be back preaching the same.
"They are spending thousands. They are running about that court like headless chickens, it is ridiculous, it is stupid. What is wrong with this country? I do not hate anybody."
"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."
Among those who turned out to show their support were Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sammy Wilson and his DUP colleague William Humphrey. Wilson, a longstanding member of McConnell's church, said:
"I think this is an important issue of freedom of speech. I believe a prosecution like this introduces a chill factor into society where people feel that if they speak out on something that they believe passionately they could end up being dragged through the courts."
"People should have the right to express what they believe without fear of prosecution. 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."
McConnell, who turned down an offer to avoid a trial, said the issue of Christians being singled out for persecution in Britain today 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 22m40s) that it is impossible that the God of the Hebrew and Christian Bible is the Allah of the Koran. He said:
"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."
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 case has been adjourned until September 3.
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 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 display prominently 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.
In an essay published by the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, an atheist journalist who supports McConnell, wrote:
"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.
"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.
"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 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. ... 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 victimized and persecuted in our society."
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.