An evangelical preacher who called Islam “satanic” and “heathen” should have every right to criticise other religions, a judge was told today.
Amid extraordinary scenes at Belfast Magistrates’ Court, Pastor James McConnell’s lawyer confirmed he will be denying “moral or legal culpability” on charges brought over a controversial sermon.
Solicitor Joe Rice insisted: “He did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims.
“He simply expressed his view about another religion, not in a personalised manner but in an entirely generalised way.
“He believes freedom of speech - he’s a member of the clergy in Northern Irelanmd - should mean he has every right to criticise Islam and other religions, just as Islamic clerics have the right to criticise him and Christian clerics.”
Pastor McConnell, 78, is being prosecuted over remarks made in an internet-broadcast sermon he delivered at his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast in may last year.
He defended his comments but following a public outcry he later apologised for any offence or distress caused.
The preacher has been charged with offences of 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.
An estimated 1,000 supporters, including Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, turned up at the Laganside court complex for the preacher’s first appearance in the case.
Some held placards declaring ‘Christianity under persecution’ and ‘Evil Sharia law is not welcome in our country’.
Dressed in a blue suit, Pastor McConnell appeared relaxed as he sat in the public gallery among some of those who managed to get seats for the hearing.
The rest of the crowd either crammed outside the doors of the court or continued protesting on the streets below.
Because the prosecution was brought by summons the preacher was not required to enter the dock.
But after the case was called the defence his stance was made clear.
“We are pleading not guilty - a very candid not guilty,” Mr Rice told District Judge Amanda Henderson.
The solicitor also disclosed plans to mount an abuse of process application before any trial hearing.
He contended: “This is one of the most bizarre, peculiar cases I have ever seen before these courts.”
Mr Rice insisted that an “avalanche of material, both public and legally”, was available to show his client intention to contest the charges.
He pressed the prosecution to indicate if any of four main witnesses in the case where prepared to give evidence against the pastor.
In response a Public Prosecution Service (PPS) lawyer said statements were given to police, with any further contact expected after the defendant’s attitude is formally entered.
Acknowledging the huge numbers who had turned out to support his client, Mr Rice called for the case to be moved to a larger courtroom in future.
“There are approximately 1,000 people here, Pastor McConnell is a revered pastor in the Greater Belfast area,” he explained.
“He has family, he has friends, he has members of his congregation who want to hear this case.”
Judge Henderson was told how the defendant has been waiting for the chance to clear his name.
“This is a principled stand,” Mr Rice added.
He claimed the PPS had “dangled a carrot” in front of Pastor McConnell by offering to give him an informed warning at an earlier stage.
“That was based on the premise that he pleads guilty to the offences,” the lawyer said.
“Pastor McConnell has strenuously denied any culpability, either morally or legally, in relation to these offences and will continue to do do.”
The case was then listed for a further hearing in four weeks time.
As the preacher left the courtroom loud cheers and applause broke out among his supporters.
He told those waiting to hear news of the proceedings: “We are back on September 3, our solicitor has done a wonderful job.”
Christian hymns could be heard by the time he joined the others outside.