McConnell warns of ‘uprising’ if Islam sermon leads to jail term

Pastor James McConnell says he hasn't had any sleepless nights about the verdict
Pastor James McConnell says he hasn't had any sleepless nights about the verdict

The Belfast preacher due back in court next week over a controversial sermon on Islam, has said a guilty verdict would spark an “uprising”.

Pastor James McConnell was charged following the broadcasting of remarks he made from the pulpit of the Whitewell Tabernacle last May.

When a video of the sermon was uploaded to the Newtownabbey church’s website, it showed the 78-year-old describing the Islamic faith as “heathen” and “satanic”.

Mr McConnell was subsequently prosecuted with the three-day trial held at Belfast Magistrates’ Court last month.

Judgment has been reserved and will be delivered on Tuesday.

Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Mr McConnell said he shared his legal team’s optimism that the verdict will go in his favour, but warned of widespread anger if he is jailed.

“I am willing to go to jail and I am going to stand for what I believe in. If the verdict goes against me – and they do put me in jail – there will be such an uprising in this country.”

However, Mr McConnell said imprisonment was a price he was willing to pay rather than renounce his beliefs.

“I can honestly say I haven’t had one sleepless night over this court case.

“It’s not that I’m an iron man or anything like that, I just have other concerns in my heart,” he said.

“I am concerned about this country and about the way it is going politically, spiritually, every way I am really concerned about it.

“The country is a bigger issue than me – I am just praying for the Lord to guide me at this particular time.

“I have had thousands of emails, over 20,000 of them, plus cards, letters and phone calls. It has been amazing.”

The controversial preacher faced 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 sermon was streamed online. He denied both charges.

During the three-day hearing, Mr McConnell’s barrister said his client was was “not stereotyping a whole religion” but was “talking about cells of people”.

Phillip Mateer QC said: “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 day one of the trial, 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 Mr McConnell defended his comments.

The veteran preacher has received backing from First Minister Peter Robinson and a number of other prominent Executive ministers and political leaders.

Mr McConnell said he was prepared for whatever judgment is handed down, and that he felt sorry for District Judge Liam McNally who is hearing the case.

“The judge is in such a difficult situation here and has got to please so many people.

“We will just see what happens on Tuesday. I am on a level keel and I will just take what comes to me.

“My family will be there with me to hear what is going to take place. We are in the 100-seater court and the Whitewellers filled it every day.”