A call by Martin McGuinness for police to investigate James McConnell over the pastor’s anti-Islam sermon was met with widespread amusement in court yesterday.
Supporters of Mr McConnell, who had packed the public gallery, erupted in laughter when they heard a clip from a BBC broadcast last year in which Stephen Nolan put to the pastor the Sinn Fein deputy first minister’s reaction to his controversial May 2014 sermon.
The clip, played during Mr McConnell’s trial, included the pastor’s reaction, relayed to Nolan, to the suggestion from the former IRA commander: “Tell [Mr McGuinness] to go to the police and confess some of the things he did in the old days.”
There was loud applause from Pastor McConnell’s supporters on hearing that retort about Mr McGuinness.
“But he’s the deputy first minister,” Nolan protested in the clip.
“I don’t care what he is,” replied Mr McConnell in the recording, to more laughter from the gallery as it was played to the court.
The pastor said he did not accept anything said by Mr McGuinness or Gerry Adams – “the whole lot of them”.
The sequence was one of many striking episodes during yesterday’s opening day in the trial of Pastor McConnell, who is accused of making “grossly offensive” remarks about Muslims at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, as broadcast online.
The defendant denies the charges.
The trial began with the extraordinary courtroom backdrop of a DVD of the May 2014 service being played to the trial, including prayers and gospel music.
The hearing had started with some sharp exchanges over procedure between David Russell, the prosecuting barrister, Philip Mateer QC, the defence, and Liam McNally, the district judge, including debate over whether the full service needed to be played. Mr Mateer maintained that it did.
Earlier, he had forcefully stated that it was unclear exactly which part of the sermon had led to Mr McConnell being put on trial.
At the end of Mr Russell’s opening arguments, which the prosecutor had said would clarify the matter, Mr Mateer concluded that the entire case rested on five words uttered by the pastor: “ ... but I don’t trust [Muslims]”.
During yesterday’s hearing, which ran from 10.30am to 4.15pm, Pastor McConnell sat in the front row of a 20-seat block of seating, in front of the 100-seat public gallery.
He craned his neck at times, looking up and forward at others, or down at the floor.
Sometimes he leaned back or turned round to catch the eye of supporters.
Often he was smiling. Sometimes the pastor was staring intently at proceedings in the court in front of him.
He had, sitting to his right, Pastor Nick Park, of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland, and to his left his son-in-law, Norman Hobson, daughter Linda Hobson, wife Margaret, and other daughter Julie McKay.
During the lunch break, Mr Hobson told the News Letter they were there “to support him, stand with him. We believe what he says is the truth.”
On the other side of the court sat Father Patrick McCafferty, a Catholic priest from Crossgar, and Imam Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hussaini, both of whom are willing to appear as witnesses on behalf of Mr McConnell.
In front of that pair sat Sammy Wilson MP, who explained that his parents had known the pastor, and who said that he was hoping to testify as to Mr McConnell’s character.
The gallery was filled with members of Pastor McConnell’s church, including many of retirement age.
Other spectators included the young NI Director of Evangelical Alliance Peter Lynas.
As the DVD of the service was played, during the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, a woman in the front row of the gallery swayed her head to the tune.
The video of the service was made up of skilled camerawork filmed from around the inside of the church. At the start of Pastor McConnell’s sermon, he said: “I want you to listen to me carefully tonight.”
When he added, “I could be misunderstood and probably will be”, there was laughter in the court yesterday, the pastor’s words seeming prophetic, in light of events thereafter.
“But I believe this with all my heart,” he continued, before launching into the contested sermon.
At one point in the trial, during one of the various clips of Mr McConnell talking to Nolan, he told the broadcaster: “If they throw me in prison, they’ll throw me in prison.”
Nolan responded to the comment, which was made before Mr McConnell was charged, with a second or two of silence.
As it was played in court, there was silence there too, a hush that seemed highly charged in light of events subsequent to the interview.
In another clip, Nolan grilled Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who was on a show alongside Pastor McConnell, and criticising the pastor.
Nolan asked the Belfast Muslim leader if he supported hanging people for offences such as adultery (in the context of a discussion about the possible execution of a Christian woman in Sudan).
Dr Al-Wazzan, who reported Pastor McConnell to police, did not answer directly. “That’s a nitty gritty detail,” he told Nolan.
Many of the audience smiled and seemed on the verge of further laughter as that comment was played from the man who last year apologised after appearing to praise the ‘peace’ brought about in Mosul by ISIS, the murderous regime that has carried out mass executions in the territory it controls and that was behind last month’s Paris massacre and is so dangerous that it is now the target of a global coaltion to oust it.
• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor