Northern Ireland

Pastor James McConnell in court over 'Satanic' Islam claims

Pastor James McConnell received support outside court during his appearance today
Pastor James McConnell received support outside court during his appearance today

A LEGAL action against an evangelical preacher who branded Islam 'satanic' is among the most bizarre cases to come to court, a judge has heard.

Pastor James McConnell appeared before Belfast Magistrates Court charged with two offences connected to a controversial sermon he gave last year.

The 78-year-old from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act after remarks made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast were streamed online.

Defence solicitor Joe Rice told District Judge Amanda Henderson his client was strenuously contesting the case.

He said: "We are pleading not guilty. Very candidly not guilty."

Up to 1,000 people with banners and placards turned out to support Pastor McConnell who was cheered and applauded as he entered and exited courtroom number nine of the Laganside complex.

The elderly preacher, who was dressed in a navy suit, white shirt and purple tie, did not enter the dock for the brief hearing. Instead, he sat in the public gallery behind his wife Margaret, supported by friends and other family members.

The judge was told that the defence team intended to lodge an abuse of process application to have the case thrown out of court.

Mr Rice added: "This is one of the most bizarre and peculiar cases I have ever seen before the court."

The court also heard how Pastor McConnell had rejected a lesser punishment and was taking a "principled stance" on the issue of freedom of expression. He "strenuously denied" any moral or legal culpability, it was claimed.

Mr Rice said: "The Pastor has waited a long time for this to come to court. He did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims.

"He expressed views about another religion, not in a personalised manner but in a generalised way.

"He has every right to criticise Islam, as Islamic clerics have the right to entice him.

"This is a principled stance that the pastor has taken."

Meanwhile, the defence team also slammed prosecutors for an apparent lack of action on disclosure.

"This is not the PPS's finest hour, this case," Mr Rice said.

Outside, Pastor McConnell addressed a large crowd of Christian supporters who cheered and sang hymns as he left the court building.

He said: "They were nervous in that court, very nervous. I thank God for my solicitor who presented a brilliant case. I will not go back on what I preached. I am not guilty.

"I want to be exonerated, I want acquitted, I want rid of all this. But when I am rid of all this I will be back preaching the same."

The pastor accused prosecutors of wasting public funds and said he did not hate anyone.

He added: "They are spending thousands. They are running about that court like headless chickens, it is ridiculous, it is stupid. What is wrong with this country?

"I do not hate anybody."

Among those who turned out to show their support were Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson and his DUP colleague William Humphrey.

Mr Wilson, a longstanding member of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, church said: "I think this is an important issue of freedom of speech.

"I believe a prosecution like this introduces a chill factor into society where people feel that if they speak out on something that they believe passionately they could end up being dragged through the courts."

The case has been adjourned until September 3.