Comment: It is hugely disturbing that Pastor McConnell was put in the dock

Pastor James McConnell arrives at Langanside courts in Belfast to hear the judgement on the case which was taken against him regarding comments he made in one of his sermons.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Langanside courts in Belfast to hear the judgement on the case which was taken against him regarding comments he made in one of his sermons.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Step back for a minute and reflect on the events around Pastor James McConnell being brought to trial.

It has, when you think about it, the hallmarks of a rich satire on modern Britain, and the almost hopeless moral confusion that seems to surface in the country with increasing regularity.

A pastor aged 78 makes a fire and brimstone sermon, as fundamentalist preachers do, in which – among various targets – he has blunt words to say about Islam, and the modern threat from Islamic terror (a threat about which most people in the western world were agreed before Paris, let alone after it).

But even so, many people react with horror towards the pastor’s sermon.

Two people express their anger at the minister’s words, which they consider to be ‘hate’ speech and demand a police probe.

One of those two people is the former commander in a terror group, a role about which he is unrepentant. He cites a code of Omerta as to why he does not need to be forthcoming about his role in that group, which most of the wider population think was guilty of genuine hate crimes – some of them massacres, and for which typically no-one was brought to justice.

The other man who is outraged at the pastor does not merely call for a police investigation. He actually reports the preacher to police.

He too is a rather unabashed figure. Indeed, this complainant, a leader of the local Muslim community, has warmly praised the peace in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

And who happens to have brought about that peace? A group called Islamic State or Isis, that crucifies people, kills Christians and has a particular fetish with beheading. Ideally this is done slowly with a knife, but it is finding many victims to work its way through, and can speed things up by using a sword.

Oh, and it stones female adulterers to death and throws homosexual people off buildings (the last reported recipient of that fate a 15-year-old gay boy, hurled screaming to his death recently).

These two men – the former commander of the terror hate group and the enthusiast for the deranged mass murdering Isis – go entirely untrammelled for their past omissions or commissions or their radical views.

But the authorities arrest the Christian pastor. Almost two years after his sermon, he is dragged through the courts.

There is nothing funny about this satire, because it is more or less what happened to Pastor McConnell.

There are of course a few things to make clear: I do not believe for a second that the police or PPS were influenced by Martin McGuinness’s call for an investigation into Mr McConnell’s comments.

And Dr Raied Al-Wazzan’s praise of Mosul happened months after Mr McConnell had been questioned. Dr Al-Wazzan apologised for his praise for the ‘peace’ brought about by Isis.

But even so, it is hugely disturbing that the case was brought against the pastor.

While he did us all a service by rejecting that he was criminally culpable and refusing the informed warning, I cannot take as much comfort from Tuesday’s ruling as many other people have done.

I sat through the entirety of the pastor’s trial. The judge, Liam McNally, conducted it with scrupulous fairness.

However, I believe that the pastor’s comments fell so far short of being “grossly offensive” (as interpreted by our leading judges in cases called ‘Collins’ and ‘Chambers’) that they were not only below the threshold for conviction (as Mr McNally found on Tuesday) but so far below that the case should have been dismissed as sought by Mr McConnell’s QC Philip Mateer on day two of the trial (which Mr McNally declined).

Mr McNally said he agreed “entirely with [the prosecuting barrister] that [some of Mr McConnell’s comments] are easily capable of being construed as grossly offensive”.

The Public Prosecution Service has already cited such sentiments and said it is “clear from the judgment that the court considered [McConnell] had a case to answer”.

I disagree, but perhaps the judge and PPS are correct. If there is any prospect that they are so, Westminster must revisit the Communications Act 2003 and change its wording.

As it happens I am not even close to sharing Pastor McConnell’s beliefs, so it has been heartening to see humanist groups at the forefront of defending his right to make what one of them described as a “silly” sermon.

Mr McNally made an excellent observation that there would have been a “tornado” of protest if someone had made the exact same speech as the pastor, but substituting Christian for Islam (“Christianity is heathen, Christianity is satanic”, etc). But the fact that some Christians may be hypocrites is interesting but incidental.

Last year a survey for BBC Radio Four’s Today programme found that 27 per cent of British Muslims had some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This was a shocking finding about which the UK should be very aware, particularly given that hundreds of Britons are fighting jihad.

If someone deduces from such ambivalence towards terror that they should not trust all Muslims, then they might be crude or guilty of an irresponsible, even outrageous, leap of logic but that should not be enough to come close to the criminal law.

The pastor often got confused when grilled on Nolan or in court as to what he meant in his ‘trust’ comment but he never specified all Muslims, although I accept it is possible to infer that from his original wording. But amid such reputable poll findings some generalised concerns about British Muslim attitudes to violence are not only legitimate, they are appropriate, even if some foolish people arrive at foolish and distorted conclusions from such findings.

In the 1980s, the loyalist George Seawright got a deserved suspended jail term for incitement to hatred for his evil “burn Catholics” comment. That is a clear example of where free speech must be constrained.

But Pastor McConnell should never have been anywhere near court. At Stormont and Westminster, politicians must urgently examine how to ensure that no case remotely like this can ever appear before a judge again.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor

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