Hundreds turn out to support evangelical preacher appearing in court after he branded Islam 'satanic' and 'heathen'
by Gemma Mullin
Hundreds have turned out to support an evangelical preacher who has appeared in court after he branded Islam 'satanic' and 'heathen'.
Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, was at Belfast Magistrates' Court charged over comments he made in a controversial sermon, which was streamed online last year.
The brief hearing had to be accommodated in one of the largest court rooms after scores of people turned up.
The pensioner, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and purple tie, did not enter the dock. Instead, he sat in the public gallery beside his wife Margaret, supported by friends and other family members.
Afterwards, amid cheers, applause and hymn singing he told supporters who had filled the court corridor: 'I believe, for the prosecution, this is a hot potato. They don't know how to handle it. They are miserable.
'I am looking forward to testifying if they give me a chance. Either they try me and put me in prison or I am free to preach the gospel.'
North Belfast Democratic Unionist Party MP Nigel Dodds stood at the back of the court throughout proceedings.
Outside, Christian supporters were joined by the DUP's East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson and North Belfast MLA William Humphrey.
The large crowd, some of whom were carrying banners and placards which read 'We support Pastor McConnell' and 'Evil Sharia law is not welcome in our country', cheered and sang hymns.
After embracing and shaking hands with his supporters, Pastor McConnell said: 'I will stand firm for the gospel. I will not relent one inch.'
He said he had been heartened by the level of support.
'This is important, not only for me, it is important for every minister of the gospel of every denomination of freedom of speech and freedom of worship. This is, I believe, a test case.'
McConnell's solicitor said he was was currently wading through 'scores' of volunteer witnesses willing to testify on behalf of the firebrand preacher.
Defence solicitor Paul Dougan said: 'The case will be contested. We have been inundated with scores of potential witnesses who wish to give evidence on behalf of Pastor McConnell.'
The preacher is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act after the remarks made from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast were streamed online last May.
He is charged 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.
The case may last up to five days, the court heard, while material broadcast on the radio and television is also being sought by the defence team.
Mr Dougan added: 'We have corresponded with the BBC's legal team on that.'
Another defence solicitor, Joe Rice, told the court they had not abandoned plans to lodge an abuse of process application but were awaiting further disclosure of documents, including a police officer's notebook.
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson was forced to apologised after he defended McConnell's right to free speech but ended up sparking a backlash himself.
The First Minister said: 'I wouldn't trust Muslims who are following Sharia Law to the letter and neither would he.
'However, as I have said in many of the normal daily activities of life, I would have no difficulty in trusting Muslims to go down to the shop for me.'
The 66-year-old met Belfast's Muslim leaders to apologise and insisted that he did not mean to insult Islam.
McConnell's case has been adjourned until October 1.
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