A high-profile evangelical preacher accused of insulting Islam has described his prosecution as “ridiculous”.
Giving evidence to the third day of his trial at Belfast Magistrates’ Court, Pastor James McConnell said he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims when he described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic” during a controversial sermon last May.
McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted 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 from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle were streamed online. He denies both charges.
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 case is being heard before District Judge Liam McNally.
White-haired McConnell, who was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and purple tie, spent about an hour and a half giving evidence on his own behalf. He sipped water but declined a number of offers to take a break.
“I want this over,” he told the judge.
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 Fr Patrick McCafferty did take the stand to defend McConnell’s character.
The trial continues.