A Belfast preacher will be prosecuted for referring to Islam as “satanic” and claiming that its doctrine was “spawned in hell.”
During a sermon at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May 2014, 78-year-old born-again Christian pastor James McConnell denounced Islam as a “heathen” religion, saying it was barbarian and Godless.
Although the pastor initially defended his remarks, a huge public backlash and accusations of Islamophobia forced him to publicly apologize for any offense his sermon caused the Muslim community.
Despite his apology, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service informed McConnell last week that he was to receive an “informed warning” regarding his words. The warning is not a conviction and would allow the preacher to avoid prosecution, although it would remain on his criminal record for a year.
Speaking to the BBC, a representative for the Public Prosecution Service in North Ireland said that McConnell had spoken in violation of the Communications Act 2003 by “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.”
McConnell, however, refused to accept the warning and is refusing to accept that he should not be allowed to preach freely against Muslim beliefs.
“I’m not taking it lying down. I am 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,” he added.
Pastor James McConnell applauded as he arrives at laganside court in belfast charged over a controversial speech pic.twitter.com/5NjmicLFJ2— Lesley-Anne McKeown (@LAMcbelfast) August 6, 2015
He has, however, stepped down as pastor of the church he founded, although he claims that his decision to leave had nothing to do with the investigation. McConnell claims he had been considering retirement for the last 18 months.
Speaking on behalf of the McConnell, a solicitor said "we are declaring...a very candid not-guilty".
The lawyer argues that McConnell’s sermon "did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims. He simply expressed his views about another religion, not in a personalized manner but in an entirely generalized way."
Commenting on the preacher’s decision not to accept the “informed warning,” his legal team stated that to accept the warning would be to accept guilt where he feels there is none.
Supporters of Pastor James McConnell gather outside Court as the preacher prepares to defend his attack on Islam. pic.twitter.com/9WIpUeaSI1— Mark Simpson (@BBCMarkSimpson) August 6, 2015
Among McConnell's supporters are some unlikely people. A London-based imam, Muhammad Al-Hussaini declared, “If Pastor McConnell is convicted and imprisoned I will go to prison with him."
Al-Hussaini strongly objects to the prosecution on grounds of free speech and claims that it is a matter of "deep dismay" that a "fellow citizen is being subjected to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he made incited physical harm to anyone."
Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson also threw himself into the fray, coming to the Pastor’s defense.
Robinson was forced to apologize outside the Belfast Islamic Center after he sided with the preacher, saying he would trust Muslims “to go down to the shops” for him but would not trust them in matters of spiritual guidance.
McConnell's sermon remarks were first denounced by Muslim businessman Raied al-Wazzan. Based in Belfast but born in Mosul, Iraq, al-Wazzan has himself courted controversy with remarks in which he praised the Islamic State takeover by Mosul. The businessman commented that the city "had become the most peaceful city in the world," a place in which you could "walk from east to west without fear." He also later apologized for his comments.
This is not the first time that Belfast has been the center of a controversy regarding religious freedom. Earlier this year, a Belfast bakery was forced to pay compensation after it refused, citing religious objections, to bake a cake bearing with the words "Support Gay Marriage."
Should Pastor McConnell be prosecuted for his remarks regarding Islam or are they protected by the right to freedom of speech? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.