UK: Belfast Pastor Faces Prison for "Grossly Offending" Islam
by Soeren Kern
An evangelical Christian pastor in Northern Ireland is being prosecuted for making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.
James McConnell, 78, is facing up to six months in prison for delivering a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic." The message was streamed live on the Internet, and a Muslim group called the police to complain.
According to Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service (PPS), McConnell violated the 2003 Communications Act by "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive."
Observers say that McConnell's prosecution is one of a growing number of examples in which British authorities — who routinely ignore incendiary speech by Muslim extremists — are using hate speech laws to silence Christians.
McConnell, who turned down an offer to avoid a trial, says the issue of Christians being singled out for persecution in Britain must be confronted, and that he intends to turn his case into a milestone trial "in defense of freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
The controversy began on the evening of Sunday, May 18, 2014, when McConnell, the founding pastor of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, an evangelical mega-church in northern Belfast, preached a sermon on a foundational verse of the Christian Bible, 1 Timothy 2:5, which states: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."
Preaching with an oratorical flourish common to traditional Protestantism, McConnell said(sermon begins at 22m, 40s):
McConnell's comments about Islam comprised less than ten minutes of a 35-minute sermon that focused on Christian theology.
The blowback was as swift as it was predictable. The Belfast Islamic Center, which claims to represent all of the 4,000 Muslims thought to be living in Northern Ireland, complained to police, who dutifully launched an investigation into whether there was a "hate crime motive" behind McConnell's remarks.
McConnell later issued a public apology, but he refused to recant. He also rejected a so-called informed warning. Such warnings are not convictions, but they are recorded on a person's criminal record for 12 months. Anyone who refuses to accept the warning can be prosecuted, and McConnell now faces six months in prison. The first hearing of his case is set for August 6.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, McConnell said he would rather go to prison than disavow his comments about Islam.
McConnell said that the charges against him were symbolic of the persecution Christians are facing in Britain today:
McConnell's attorney, Joe Rice, vowed to fight the case "tooth and nail." He said:
After public prosecutors announced that they plan to call eight witnesses in McConnell's prosecution, Rice said:
McConnell stressed that he does not 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." He added:
In an interview with the Guardian, McConnell reiterated that he is "not going to be gagged." He said:
The executive director of the Belfast Islamic Center, Raied al-Wazzan, is leading the push to prosecute McConnell. "This is inflammatory language and it definitely is not acceptable," he saidin an interview with the BBC.
Al-Wazzan is now trying to leverage the controversy over McConnell's remarks to shame local politicians into providing him with public land, for free, to build a mega-mosque in Belfast. "We need the land from the government," he told the BBC. "And there is a huge demand for it. The Muslim population is growing in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, but especially in south Belfast."
In January 2015, al-Wazzan drew attention to himself when he praised the Islamic State's rule of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where jihadists have decimated out the city's 2,000-year-old, 60,000-strong Christian community. Speaking to the BBC, al-Wazzan said: "Since the Islamic State took over, it [Mosul] has become the most peaceful city in the world."
After local politicians called for the government to cut public funding for the Belfast Islamic Center, al-Wazzan recanted. But the Belfast Islamic Center's website continues to prominentlydisplay the writings of a Muslim extremist named Bilal Philips, who has been banned from entering the UK because of his preaching of violence against Jews, Christians and homosexuals, and his glorification of Islamic suicide bombers.
McConnell summed it up this way: "Islam is allowed to come to this country, Islam is allowed to worship in this country, Islam is allowed to preach in this country and they preach hate. And for years we are not allowed to give a tract out, we are not allowed in Islam, we are not allowed to preach the gospel. We are persecuted in Islam if we stand for Jesus Christ."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.
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