'Satanic Islam' sermon Belfast pastor James McConnell says he faces six months in jail
by Suzanne Breen
Controversial preacher James McConnell says he faces up to six months in jail for calling Islam satanic.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Pastor McConnell last night defiantly said he'd go to prison rather than withdraw the remarks.
"I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me," he said.
"They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time.
"I have no regrets about what I said. I do not hate Muslims but I denounce Islam as a doctrine and I make no apologies for that. I will be pleading 'not guilty' when I stand in the dock in August."
Pastor McConnell's solicitor Joe Rice vowed to fight the case "tooth and nail".
He called for the PPS to withdraw the charges and said pursuing the case was "an absolute waste of scarce public funds".
He revealed plans to turn the case into a landmark trial and call a range of political, religious and academic witnesses from across the UK to give evidence "in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of religion".
In an interview in his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, Pastor McConnell spoke for the first time about the serious health issues he faced. And he revealed that after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the PSNI had warned him that his life was in danger. He said the decision to prosecute him, and not extremist Muslim preachers in Britain, showed that Christians were being "persecuted" by the authorities.
Pastor McConnell has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive".
The charges centre on a sermon he gave in his church last year in which he said "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell". The sermon was streamed on the internet.
Pastor McConnell said: "I am facing up to six months in jail and a hefty fine for saying what I believe. I have had four heart bypasses, a liver operation and I have cancer and diabetes.
"All I need to get by in prison is my tablets, my reading glasses and books from the library.
"If I am sent to jail, I will use my time there reading and writing. My wife is 79 years old and in ill health too. But she has always been my rock and we will get through this together."
Pastor McConnell said that the charges against him were symbolic of the "persecution" Christians are currently facing.
"It is a case of back to the future. In the first century, the apostles were jailed for preaching the gospel.
"Early Christians were boiled in oil, burnt at the stake and devoured by wild beasts. If they faced that and kept their faith, I can easily do six months in jail."
Pastor McConnell voluntarily went to a police station for interview about his remarks in June last year. He said he first heard he was being prosecuted on Wednesday when two female PSNI officers arrived at his home.
"They said, 'We're sorry. Here's the papers' and left."
He revealed that he was living under the threat of death after the PSNI contacted him following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January.
"The police contacted me to tell me that my life could be in danger and that I should be careful," he said.
Mr Rice said: "It has taken the PPS and the PSNI over a year to issue proceedings. What have they been doing for the past 12 months?
"It is extremely disappointing that at a time when the PPS currently has so much on its plate and when resources are so scarce - public money is being used to pursue a man who has given 60 years of his life to the service of God. I urge the PPS to withdraw these charges. I don't see how targeting an elderly gentleman is in the public interest.
"I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
"If we're moving into a genuinely pluralist society, these freedoms must be extended to Christians as much as they are to others."
Mr Rice said that the Crown planned to call eight witnesses in Pastor McConnell's prosecution.
"Rest assured we will call many, many more. This will be a landmark case with leading political, religious and academic figures giving evidence.
"I suspect the trial will have to be moved to the High Court because Laganside courts won't be big enough to accommodate it."
While Pastor McConnell will appear in court in August, Mr Rice doesn't expect the full case to be heard until December.
The PPS said Pastor McConnell was prosecuted because he had declined the offer of an "informed warning" similar to that given to Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly after an incident involving a PSNI Land Rover in north Belfast in 2013.
Mr Rice said that while his client "most definitely won't be signing any document declaring guilt", the PPS must expand on what an informed warning actually meant.
He added: "The logic of the decision to prosecute Pastor McConnell means that many clerics - including Catholic priests aand other evangelical pastors - could now find themselves under investigation for preaching with passion.
"My client's remarks weren't addressed at individual Muslims but at Islam in generic terms."
Pastor McConnell said: "I apologised last year if I had unintentionally hurt anyone's feelings. I would defend the right of any Muslim cleric to preach against me or Christianity. I most certainly don't want any Muslim clerics prosecuted but I find it very unfair that I'm the only preacher facing prosecution."
He stressed that he didn't hate Muslims. "My church funds medical care for 1,200 Muslim children in Kenya and Ethiopia," he said. "I've no hatred in my heart for Muslims but I won't be stopped from preaching against Islam."
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