An evangelical preacher accused of branding Islam “heathen” and “satanic” would usually be considered a “credit to the community”, a court in Belfast has been told.
Pastor James McConnell has been charged in connection with a controversial speech made from the pulpit of his north Belfast church last year.
Pastor McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted at Belfast Magistrates’ Court under the 2003 Communications Act.
He 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 at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle were streamed online.
The elderly fundamentalist denies both charges.
During the first day of his high-profile trial, District Judge Liam McNally was told that Pastor McConnell had devoted 60 years to helping “needy” people including those struggling with marital breakdown or battling drug and alcohol addictions.
Defence barrister Philip Mateer QC said: “In all other circumstances the pastor might be considered a credit to the community.”
It also emerged that during two police interviews, conducted at Newtownabbey police station in June 2014, Pastor McConnell, who preached to a weekly audience of about 2,000 people, had relied on a pre-prepared “clarification” statement.
On the advice of his solicitor, he did not answer a number of questions but referred detectives to the statement in which he said he had never intended to cause offence, stir up tension or incite hatred.
The statement included a reference to Pastor McConnell’s desire to publicly apologise for any distress he may have “unwittingly” caused, that he abhorred violence and condemned anyone from any faith who used religion to justify it, the court heard.
Giving evidence the detective sergeant, who led the interviews, described Pastor McConnell as an influential character.
The officer, who cannot be named for security reasons, said: “I think that it is the people who trust him that’s the issue.
“The pastor is a very influential man and people listen to his words.”
Pastor McConnell received backing from First Minister Peter Robinson and a number of other prominent government ministers and political leaders.
Earlier the court was shown a DVD of the entire service from May 2014 in which Pastor McConnell made his controversial comments.
The recording, which lasted for over an hour, included prayers, scripture reading and hymn singing.
As gospel music rang out, some of the 100 born again Christian supporters who had packed into the public gallery gently clapped their hands, tapped their feet, swayed in their seats and mouthed the words.
At one point they also burst into spontaneous applause.
After about an hour Judge McNally, who had a transcript of the service and had already questioned the value of watching it in its entirety, asked for the DVD to be stopped.
The judge said: “I am as keen as the next man on an uplifting tune but the rest of this is three songs and then the pastor asks everyone to go upstairs to get a cup of tea.”
However, Judge McNally accepted defence arguments stressing the importance of the remaining few minutes.
During the sermon, which was played in full, Pastor McConnell told the congregation he may be misunderstood but was trying to highlight the plight of a Sudanese woman who had been sentenced to death.
He said: “Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
Three days have been set aside for the trial which has attracted global attention.
In his opening speech, prosecution lawyer David Russell said the decision to proceed with the prosecution had been “proportionate and necessary”.
The lawyer said: “He (McConnell) characterises the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way. And that’s grossly offensive and that’s not protected from saying it from a pulpit.
“It has nothing to do with religion or freedom of expression or his freedom to preach.”
Pastor McConnell’s appearances on television chat shows and radio phone-ins were also played to the court.
Mr Russell added: “He is unrepentant.”
The non-jury trial is being heard in one of the biggest courtrooms in the huge Laganside complex, normally reserved for crown court cases.
Although more than 100 supporters packed into the public gallery and more were accommodated elsewhere in the court, the turnout was significantly lower than for previous appearances.
Throughout proceedings, Pastor McConnell, who was dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt and purple tie sat in the body of the court, listening intently beside his wife Margaret and other family members.
He was not required to sit in the dock.
At times he laughed and smiled, glancing back towards the public gallery. On other occasions he nodded in agreement with comments made on television which were being aired via two large television screens. At other times he appeared to firmly disagree, shaking his head.
Afterwards, Pastor McConnell said it had been a “fair hearing”.
He said: “It was a fair day. I’ll see what happens tomorrow (Tuesday). We are looking forward to tomorrow.”
On his arrival on Monday morning Pastor McConnell had been in bullish form and joked that it was a “good day for a hanging, particularly to hang the prosecution service”.
The case continues.