An evangelical preacher who allegedly criticised Islam in a controversial speech has no case to answer, a court has been told.
Pastor James McConnell is being prosecuted over a speech in which he described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic”, made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Tabernacle in north Belfast in May last year.
Making an application to have the high-profile case halted, defence barrister Phillip Mateer QC said: “The defendant has no case to answer.”
District Judge Liam McNally, however, rejected the application.
Three days have been set aside for the trial before District Judge Liam McNally at Belfast Magistrates’ Court.
Mr Mateer had said: “Freedom of speech is an important principle in our society and we are entitled to manifest our religious belief, be that Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist or whatever.”
McConnell is facing two charges - 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 - after the remarks were streamed online.
The elderly fundamentalist denies the charges.
The defence lawyer had argued that McConnell could not be held accountable for the actions of “mad men” who smash windows in Belfast or who murder on the streets of Paris.
Mr Mateer said: “He is not stereotyping a whole religion, he is talking about cells of people.
“If the pastor was more astute to the watery words to be used to weave our way through difficult areas... it would have put it beyond doubt if he had said there are ‘cells’ of jihadists. It would have put it beyond doubt if he said ‘cells’ of Islamists.”
On Monday the court was shown an hour-long DVD recording of the service during which the controversial sermon was made. The judge also heard television and radio broadcasts in which McConnell defended his comments.
Throughout the proceedings McConnell, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and blue polka-dot tie, sat listening intently beside family members including his wife Margaret.
The public gallery was again packed to capacity on Tuesday and outside some born-again Christians displayed banners pledging support for the pastor.
The court heard that during the sermon, McConnell said “Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”.
Rejecting the defence application to have the case thrown out, David Russell, for the Public Prosecution Service, had said the case centred on whether a reasonable member of society could find the words offensive.
“It is not whether he has caused gross offence to a member of the community at which it was aimed but whether a reasonable member of society judges that it would cause gross offence.”
The prosecutor later added: “It seems to me these comments fall clearly in line with being capable of being grossly offensive.”
Judge McNally said he would rule on whether to proceed after careful consideration of the arguments.
After lunch, Judge McNally said that for him to dismiss the case at this stage would have required there to be no reasonable prospect of a conviction – and accordingly, he could make no such ruling.