Pastor James McConnell trial ‘chance to display true Protestantism’

Pastor McConnell, pictured at a previous hearing in August, said he is not nervous about the first day of his trial
Pastor McConnell, pictured at a previous hearing in August, said he is not nervous about the first day of his trial

Pastor James McConnell has claimed that his prosecution over a highly-controversial anti-Islamic sermon offers a chance to display “true Protestantism”.

The evangelical founder of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle said he is not nervous about the trial, which begins on Monday in Belfast, and that he is ready to go to jail if needs be – citing the examples of writer John Bunyan and Ian Paisley.

However, he told the News Letter he does not believe he will end up in prison, because this risks causing an “outcry”.

Speaking on Sunday, the 78-year-old said: “I don’t know what they’re going to say [the prosecution], but we’re ready for them anyway ...

“A lot of people think that this is a charade – they do indeed. People think it’s a waste of public money. It could be money that could’ve been used for surgeries for people, people in great need. And they’re spending thousands on this stupid case.”

Asked if was experiencing nerves about the hearing (which is set to be the first full day of the trial, following a number of preliminary hearings) he said: “No, no. A lot of people are surprised. No I am not. I have other things on my mind than this court.”

He said he was “burdened for the nation”, saying there are “sinister powers at work in this country trying to quell Christianity – trying to quell the evangelical message”.

He added: “It’s up to us as evangelicals not to give in. To fight hard, even though we go to prison, come out again, and do the same thing again – as John Bunyan did.

“They put him in prison. And he came out and preached the same message. They stuck him back in again.

“And I think that’s how we got religious freedom in the UK – through men like Bunyan and all great servants of God who were burnt at the stake.

“If I have to go to prison, I’ll go to prison. But I don’t think I will to be honest.”

John Bunyan was a 17th century Protestant evangelist in England, who wrote the book Pilgrim’s Progress and was jailed for his religious activities.

Pastor McConnell added: “I know I’m sounding like your man [Donald] Trump at the minute but this political correctness, we have to be careful what we say.

“A feature of this tomorrow is that a Roman Catholic priest will be there, a priest that I’ve known and admired and fought with for 20 years.”

Pastor McConnell said among the others who he expects to turn out in support are DUP MP Sammy Wilson (who he said had been a member of Whitewell for over 30 years) and an imam – a Muslim cleric – from London.

Pastor McConnell said the Muslim man had sent him the gift of a Bible in English and Arabic, adding: “He said ‘I don’t agree with you Pastor McConnell – I don’t agree with you theologically, I don’t agree with you any way, but I agree with your right to speak’.”

The pastor added: “I just wish that every minister who preaches the Gospel would be there, because these men are trying to gag us, these men are trying to shut us up ... This is what I call real Protestantism. A Protestant is a man who protests.”

He said that even the Catholic priest “tomorrow will be a Protestant!”.

When it comes to the prospect of spending the yuletide season in jail, he said: “I’ve spent Christmas in different situations – don’t forget, I was an orphan.”

He said he would miss his family in the event that he is given a prison term (which, it is understood, could be up to six months if he is found guilty), but would read and write “then come out and tell all what happened”.

He was questioned about why he believes a prison term is such an unlikely outcome, and said: “Because if I go to jail there’ll be such an outcry in this country. It will rock this country if I go to jail. This has not just become local in Ulster – this is worldwide.

“If I go to jail I am following New Testament practices, because many of God’s servants were put in jail. But see when they got out again? They started to preach again. And they were put in again, and again. Ian Paisley was put in jail.”

Originally from the Woodstock district of east Belfast, Pastor McConnell’s mother died when he was eight. His father and sister both died of tuberculosis.

He said his grandparents found him “difficult to control”, and he “roamed the streets” and slept in places like Ormeau Park.

His congregation began in 1957 with 10 people, he said.

Today, the Whitewell tabernacle in north Belfast has thousands of members. He retired last year.

THE CHARGES AND BACKGROUND

He has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with 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.

He had previously refused an informed warning (a kind of reprimand issued by police).

It is understood he could face up to six months in jail if found guilty.

The charges stem from a sermon in May 2014, which was broadcast over the internet, in which he said: “People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them. Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”

He also described Enoch Powell – the British politician famous for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech warning of the dangers of immigration – as “a prophet”.

The trial in Belfast’s Magistrates’ Court, is expected to begin at 10.30am, and to continue for a number of days.