James McConnell — the Northern Irish Pastor charged with making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam — has had his request for the “ridiculous” trial to be dropped rejected, and will be sentence next month.
The prosecution told the Belfast Magistrates Court that the comments were not “a slip of the tongue”, and accused the Pastor of “intend[ing] to use those words”.
The Pastors said the charges were “ridiculous” and argued that he “was attacking the theology of Islam… not attacking any individual Muslim”.
According to the BBC, he said he “didn’t realise that good Muslim people would be hurt”. Adding: “I didn’t go into the church to provoke anyone. I went into church to present the truth”.
Mr. McConnell stands accused of a “hate crime” for “sending a malicious communication” after broadcasting a sermon on the Internet last year in which he described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic”. The charge carries a possible sentence of six months in jail.
Asked why he refused an informal caution that would have averted a criminal trial, the Pastor said he didn’t because he wanted to stand up for his freedom of speech.
“If I took it, that would be an insult to the one I love … that was me gagged for the rest of my life”, he said.
He has previously said that he is prepared to go to jail and argued that to accept the caution would be to acknowledge he did something wrong, which he contests.
In a statement, the executive director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, said the case was an important benchmark that could harm free speech and inter-faith relations across the country:
“This is a chilling prosecution and regardless of the verdict next year the trial is a sad indictment of free speech in the UK. What Pastor McConnell said was no doubt very offensive to a great number of people, but that is immaterial.
“Religious believers of different faiths must have the right to hold strong opinions about the beliefs and doctrines of others, to give forthright sermons, and to debate each-other openly; just as the non-religious must have the right to reject all religion and express their criticism and satire of religious ideas.
“While we reject what McConnell has said, it is clear that he was not inciting violence. The threshold for restricting freedom of speech should be set very high, and this case does not approach that boundary. We see this as an important test case.”
The trial has been moved to one of Belfast’s biggest courtrooms after so many supporters turned up at the first attempted hearing that the case had to be postponed.
The local Muslim leader pushing for Mr. McConnell’s prosecution has said that Mosul, where the Islamic State has 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”.