An evangelical Protestant pastor who said Islam was “Satanic” and “spawned in hell” has been acquitted of making “grossly offensive” remarks about the Muslim religion.
At Belfast Magistrates Court Judge Liam McNally ruled that 78-year-old Pastor James McConnell from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim had made “offensive” comments but they did not reach the “high threshold” of being “grossly offensive”.
About 80 supporters of Pastor McConnell applauded in the public gallery when the verdict was announced.
Pastor McConnell triggered both religious and political controversy when on May 18th last year at his Whitewall Metropolitan Tabernacle Church on the Shore Road in north Belfast he preached a sermon in which he said he did not trust Muslims.
DUP First Minister Peter Robinson defended Pastor McConnell's right to free speech. Mr Robinson said he would not trust Muslims who engaged in violence but would "trust them to go to the shops" for him. He subsequently apologised for any offence he may have caused.
Pastor McConnell said in his sermon that “new evil had arisen” and there were “cells of Muslims right throughout Britain” similar to IRA cells of the past. He said some people had characterised Islam as “little more than a variation of Christianity and Judaism” but this was wrong.
“Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teaching of the holy scripture. Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell,” he added.
Pastor McConnell said there was “powerful evidence that more and more of Muslims are putting the Koran’s hatred of Christians and Jews alike into practice”.
“Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don’t trust them,” he said.
Pastor McConnell was investigated by the PSNI for engaging in hate crime which led to his prosecution at Belfast Magistrates Court under 2003 Communications Act.
He denied charges of improper use of a public electronic communications network, and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.
Outside court, hundreds of supporters cheered as Pastor McConnell emerged. Some sang hymns as the preacher gave his reaction to the judgement.
“I am very happy,” he said.
He said he would do the sermon again, though word it differently. “The only regret I have is the response from the Muslim community - that I was out to hurt them,” he said. “There was no way I was out to hurt them - I wouldn’t hurt a hair on their head.
“But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in.
“If there are Muslims out there I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs I am totally against them.”
He added: “I would do it again but I would word it differently because I would be conscious I was hurting innocent Muslims, I would be conscious I was hurting Muslims who have come here to work hard and are doing their best - there’s no way I would hurt those people, but I would do it again - yes.”
The pastor said he did not realise how far his sermon would travel. “As far as I was concerned I was preaching to my own people, I was preaching in my own church - I didn’t realise it would go out there and so forth,” he said.
Mr McConnell also said he believed he had said “worse things” in other sermons that had been streamed online.
During the trial, a number people gave or offered to give evidence on his behalf. Belfast Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty told the court that while they had theological differences they were friends.
“I can say that Pastor McConnell has no hatred to anyone whatsoever and the people of his church are not people who go out in this community and cause trouble. They are the exact oppose,” he testified.
London-based imam and academic Muhammad Al-Hussaini wanted to speak on Pastor McConnell's behalf but was not permitted by the court on the basis that his comments would not be relevant and that he had already expressed his views in an article in The Irish Times.
In that article he wrote that as a Muslim academic and clergman, he was “hardly going to agree” with Pastor McConnell’s remarks. “Nevertheless I believe it is the very freedom of speech of Christians and Muslims to disagree and critique religious ideas that is on trial here - wherein lies the moral imperative to take a stand,” he wrote.
Mr Robinson became embroiled in the controversy by comments he made in defending the preacher’s right to free speech. He said that he too did not trust Muslims who engaged in violence or who supported Sharia law to the letter. He did say, however, that he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him.
Mr Robinson later visited the Belfast Islamic Centre to personally and publicly apologise to some 60 Muslims who were present for his comments
“I apologised for any offence that I might have caused and I made it very clear to them that the very last thing I would have on my mind would be to cause anyone hurt or distress or to insult them,” he said.
"I can't spend the rest of my life apologising but what I can do is spend the rest of my life building a united community that I believe that we want in Northern Ireland, " added Mr Robinson.