Pastor who said Islam was 'heathen' and 'Satanic' in sermon which was streamed online says the case against him is 'ridiculous'
by James Dunn
A pastor being prosecuted for calling Muslims 'heathen' and 'Satanic' in a sermon today told the court that the charge against him is 'ridiculous'.
Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Newtownabbey, County Antrim, made the controversial comments from the pulpit while his teachings were being streamed online.
The priest was later charged for improper use of electronic equipment and using it to broadcast a grossly offensive message, and he stood trial at Belfast Magistrates Court today.
But in an hour-long appearance in the witness box today, McConnell said the prosecution was 'ridiculous' and that he never intended to provoke or offend Muslims.
'I had never any intention whatsoever of hurting any one of them and I can say that before the judge and before the almighty God,' McConnell said.
He added: 'It never entered my head that someone would take me up on that. I was preaching this in the confines of my own church.
'There are Muslims there who know me and understand me. It never entered my head.'
He told the court how he was initially questioned by police about a hate crime but a year later, he received a summons for the prosecution under the 2003 Communications Act.
Under questioning by defence barrister Philip Mateer QC, the pastor revealed how he was offered a lesser punishment of an informed warning, and outlined his reasons for refusing it.
He said: 'If I took that, it would be an insult to the one that I love, for I was standing up for him, for his gospel and for his truth. If I took that informed warning that would be me gagged.
'I will take my stand no matter what happens here today.'
The case, which has received global attention, is being heard in one of Belfast's biggest courtrooms on the fourth floor of the Laganside complex normally reserved for Crown Court cases.
The 100-seat public gallery was filled with Christian supporters who were told not to react to any comments made by McConnell during his evidence session.
District Judge Liam McNally said: 'Keep views to yourself so I can fully concentrate on the pastor's evidence and do justice to his defence.'
The judge rejected an application to hear evidence from defence witness Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a London-based imam and academic.
However, East Antrim Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, missionary Jason Allen and Catholic priest Father Patrick McCafferty did enter the witness box to defend McConnell's character.
It was also revealed that several days after the sermon, McConnell visited two men believed to have been the victims of a race-hate crime and gave them £100 to repair broken windows in their home.
McConnell became a born-again Christian after being orphaned at the age of eight. He gave his first sermon aged 13 and went into the ministry at 17.
His congregation, at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, contributes £10,000 a month for missionaries in Kenya and Ethiopia.
McConnell is facing charges of improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by a public electronic communications network.
But Judge McNally today reserved judgement on the case after a three-day trial, meaning he will privately review the facts and make a decision to be announced on January 5 next year.
Judge McNally, who described the case as 'interesting', said: 'Obviously I am going to reserve my judgment. I want to consider all the points raised in submissions.'
He added: 'I should concentrate my mind by giving myself a deadline. I want to wish you all a happy and holy Christmas.'
Outside court, McConnell expressed relief that the trial had concluded.
He said: 'It has been fair. The prosecution has been fair, everybody has been fair. I can't wait now to January 5.'
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