Hundred of supporters gathered outside a Belfast court yesterday in support of the Northern Ireland pastor who called Islam “heathen.” There are “scores” of witnesses willing to testify for the pastor, who said he was ready to go to jail for his beliefs.
James McConnell, 78, who is in ill health and paying his own fees, told supporters outside the Belfast court: “either they try me and put me in prison, or I am free to preach the gospel.”
The brief hearing was held in one of the largest courtrooms in the region, after his previous hearing in August was suspended because of the overwhelming numbers of people wanting to attend.
McConnell did not enter the dock but sat beside his wife in the public gallery. As the hearing ended, there was applause, cheering and hymns sung by his supporters who filled the corridors.
“I believe, for the prosecution, this is a hot potato. They don’t know how to handle it. They are miserable. I am looking forward to testifying if they give me a chance. Either they try me and put me in prison or I am free to preach the gospel,” said McConnell, the Daily Mail reports.
“I will stand firm for the gospel. I will not relent one inch,” he told the crowd, thanking them for their support: “This is important, not only for me, it is important for every minister of the gospel of every denomination of freedom of speech and freedom of worship. This is, I believe, a test case.”
His defence solicitor Paul Dougan, said: “The case will be contested. We have been inundated with scores of potential witnesses who wish to give evidence on behalf of Pastor McConnell.”
McConnell found support for his cause at the highest level of Northern Irish politics, when First Minister Peter Robinson defended the pastor: “I wouldn’t trust Muslims who are following Sharia Law to the letter and neither would he.
“However, as I have said in many of the normal daily activities of life, I would have no difficulty in trusting Muslims to go down to the shop for me,” he said, emulating McConnell’s comments. However, the First Minister was forced to apologise for “insulting Islam” after a media backlash.
Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has accused McConnell of violating 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.”
The charges result from a sermon given in May 2014, when McConnell described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic.” He has explained many times since that he “loves” Muslims as people, but simply holds an opinion about Islamic ideology.
The local Muslim leader pushing for his prosecution has used the controversy to leverage government into supplying land for a mega-mosque. However, he has said that Mosul, where jihadists have murdered or expelled all of the city’s 2,000-year-old, 60,000-strong Christian community, is “the most peaceful city in the world” and “[Islamic State is] less evil than the Iraqi government.” He has not been charged with hate speech.
McConnell’s case has been adjourned until October 1.