Unrequited tolerance for pastor’s ‘poor translation’ of theology

Judge felt compelled to be lenient to avoid bestowing martyrdom but he wanted to rap the evangelical preacher’s knuckles

Evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell (centre) arriving at Belfast Magistrates Court,  where he was acquitted of making grossly offensive remarks  about Islam.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Evangelical preacher Pastor James McConnell (centre) arriving at Belfast Magistrates Court, where he was acquitted of making grossly offensive remarks about Islam. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

Regardless of whether he was acquitted or convicted, Pastor James McConnell was going to emerge from the Belfast Laganside court yesterday a satisfied man. To be convicted for preaching that he did not trust Muslims and that Islam was heathen, Satanic and spawned in hell would make him a martyr. To be pronounced not guilty would permit him claim a victory for free speech and for his uncompromising evangelical Christian beliefs.

In his lengthy judgment, it was obvious that Judge Liam McNally was not going to convey martyrdom on the Protestant cleric, but he wanted to rap McConnell’s knuckles and leave him with something to ponder.

It was thus fitting that the judge concluded his remarks by quoting the 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi, who said: “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”

Flanked by his solicitors outside the court, with dozens of his supporters singing hymns, the pastor said he would preach the same sermon again, but perhaps with some qualifications and references to how he abhorred Sharia law while yet loving Muslims.

“The only regret I have is the response from the Muslim community – that 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,” he said.

The judge made clear that more care would have spared McConnell, the court and the taxpayer all the trouble and expense of the case.

Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC came in for criticism from some unionist politicians and evangelical clergymen but nonetheless, while finding with the pastor, the judge, by the tenor of his comments, seemed to feel there was a valid case to be tested in court.

Judge McNally said McConnell in “his passion and enthusiasm for his subject” had lost “the run of himself”. Rather than analyse any perceived faults with Islam he had engaged in a “bout of name calling”.

He turned the pastor’s comments around and asked what would happen if Muslims had made the same comments about Christianity. “I venture to say that there would be such a tornado of protest about this which would have made the protests about what Pastor McConnell said look like an April shower.”

The bottom line however was that the pastor could not be convicted as these insults against Islam were protected by his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the end Pastor McConnell left court with only a judgmental flea in his ear, possibly even feeling vindicated, but perhaps he was contemplating the wise words of an Islamic poet.