BEN LOWRY: It was indeed shameful to see elderly pastor flounder in court

Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini(left) and Father Patrick McCafferty at court in Belfast to support Pastor James McConnell . ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini(left) and Father Patrick McCafferty at court in Belfast to support Pastor James McConnell . ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Father Paddy McCafferty, pictured, has spoken of how it was “shameful” to see Pastor McConnell in the dock accused of “grossly offensive” comments about Muslims.

Dr Al-Hussaini, also pictured, told the News Letter that he felt “love and concern” for the pastor when he was being grilled.

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

A lot of us who were in court felt similarly as we watched the elderly pastor floundering in the dock, confused and contradictory as to what he had meant in 2014.

My sense that I was witnessing something deeply unsavoury was not because I in any way liked his sermon – the atheist group that described it as “silly” got it about right. But my or theirs or anyone else’s views on the appropriateness of the satanic and other comments are immaterial, because his words fell far short of the criminal threshold. Or if not, the Communications Act 2003 wording must change.

For me the most galling part was the injustice of a frail pastor ending up in dock, given the more disgusting views out there that go unpunished.

There was much discussion in the trial of the ‘context’ of the pastor’s sermon. The prosecution used that word to explain its reliance both on other parts of the sermon that it conceded were not illegal (the satanic part) and on his later interviews on Nolan. The defence also cited context as it insisted that the entire service in which the sermon was made be played in court.

And I believe we should view the sermon in the wider context of the extremist threat in Europe, and also the ambivalence among many UK Muslims towards such mayhem.

The BBC Radio Four Today poll from last year showing that 27 per cent of British Muslims felt some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre means it is fair to ask searching questions of that community.

Mr McConnell is one of the people to have approached that point so clumsily, with his trust comment, as to have undermined it badly. But he expressed abject (albeit muddled) remorse on Nolan. CPS guidelines for England and Wales say such a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest if remorse has been shown.

That the man who reported Pastor McConnell was Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who defended the ‘peace’ brought about in Mosul by the Paris mass murderers Isis, was an almost comical but ultimately shameful (to use that adjective again) aspect to the whole sorry saga.

• Ben Lowry ( @BenLowry2 ) is News Letter deputy editor

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