Judgment reserved over preacher in ‘Satanic Islam’ sermon

Pastor McConnell with his wife Margaret
Pastor McConnell with his wife Margaret

Judgment has been reserved in the high-profile case of an evangelical preacher accused of insulting Muslims.

Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act in connection with a controversial sermon in which he said Islam was “heathen” and “satanic”.

DUP MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson leaving Belfast Magistrates' Court

DUP MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson leaving Belfast Magistrates' Court

District Judge Liam McNally told a packed sitting of Belfast Magistrates’ Court: “Obviously I am going to reserve my judgment. I want to consider all the points raised in submissions.”

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 remarks made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle last May were streamed online. He denies both charges.

The judge, who described the three-day trial as “interesting”, is expected to give his verdict on January 5.

He said: “I should concentrate my mind by giving myself a deadline. I want to wish you all a happy and holy Christmas.”

Father Patrick McCafferty leaving Belfast Magistrates' Court

Father Patrick McCafferty leaving Belfast Magistrates' Court

Earlier, during an appearance in the witness box which lasted more than an hour, McConnell said the prosecution was “ridiculous” and that he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims.

He said: “I had never any intention whatsoever of hurting any one of them and I can say that before the judge and before the almighty God.

“It never entered my head that someone would take me up on that. I was preaching this in the confines of my own church. There are Muslims there who know me and understand me. It never entered my head.”

Under questioning by defence barrister Philip Mateer QC, the pastor outlined his reasons for refusing a lesser punishment of an informed warning.

He said: “If I took that, it would be an insult to the one that I love, for I was standing up for him, for his gospel and for his truth. If I took that informed warning that would be me gagged.

“I will take my stand no matter what happens here today.”

The court heard that McConnell was initially questioned by police about a potential hate crime. It was a year later when officers issued a summons for him to be prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act, he said.

“Now a year later I am issued with this summons, the Communications Act, which is absolutely ridiculous,” he added.

It was also revealed that several days after the sermon, McConnell visited two men believed to have been the victims of a race-hate crime and gave them £100 to repair broken windows in their home.

McConnell became a born-again Christian after being orphaned at the age of eight. He gave his first sermon aged 13 and went into the ministry at 17, it was revealed.

His congregation contributes £10,000 a month for missionaries in Kenya and Ethiopia.

The case, which has received global attention, is being heard in one of Belfast’s biggest courtrooms on the fourth floor of the Laganside complex normally reserved for Crown Court cases.

The 100-seat public gallery was filled with Christian supporters who were told not to react to any comments made by McConnell during his evidence session.

Judge McNally said: “Keep views to yourself so I can fully concentrate on the pastor’s evidence and do justice to his defence.”

The judge has rejected an application to hear evidence from defence witness Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a London-based imam and academic.

However, East Antrim Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, missionary Jason Allen and Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty did enter the witness box to defend McConnell’s character.

Outside court, McConnell expressed relief that the trial had concluded.

He said: “It has been fair. The prosecution has been fair, everybody has been fair. I can’t wait now to January 5.”