BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A pastor in Northern Ireland who was prosecuted with a hate crime for denouncing the Islamic religion during a Sunday sermon last year appeared in court this week as his criminal trial moved forward.
As previously reported, James McConnell, 78, pastor of the Whitewell Metropolitan Church in North Belfast, discussed Islam during an evening sermon in May 2014. During the message, McConnell denounced the religion and said that the contrast between it and Christianity is stark.
“The God we worship and serve this evening is not Allah,” he proclaimed, according to a video of the sermon. “The Muslim god—Allah—is a heathen deity. Allah is a cruel deity. Allah is a demon deity.”
McConnell then criticized the “foolish” British government for attempting to appease Muslims financially, saying that Islam is “Satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell.” He also noted that Christians around the world are persecuted for their faith by the “fanatical worshipers” of Allah.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, McConnell’s remarks were inspired by the plight of Meriam Ibrahim—a Sudanese woman who was sentenced to hang after she was convicted of apostasy for refusing to deny her faith and convert to Islam.
But following McConnell’s sermon, the Police Service of Northern Ireland investigated the preacher for allegations of a hate crime under the 2003 Communications Act. Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the preacher’s comments as “hate mongering” and said the anti-Muslim statements “must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
John McCreedy, assistant pastor at Whitewell Metropolitan Church, also soon resigned from his position because McConnell would not retract his statements. McConnell apologized for any offense he may have caused, but would not recant his sentiments.
Because McConnell refused a lesser punishment by the government following police questioning, prosecutors decided to move the matter forward in court. The hate crimes charge appears to be related to the sermon being streamed online.
On Monday, prosecutors outlined their case against McConnell, calling him “unrepentant.”
“He characterizes the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way. And that’s grossly offensive and that’s not protected from saying it from a pulpit,” prosecuting barrister David Russell told the court. “It has nothing to do with religion or freedom of expression of his freedom to preach.”
McConnell took the stand on Wednesday, standing by his remarks—but outlining that he did not direct his comments at any one person.
“I was attacking the theology of Islam. I was not attacking any individual Muslim,” McConnell asserted. “I didn’t go into the church to provoke anyone. I went into church to present the truth.”
He also explained why he refused lesser punishment.
“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,” he said. “If I took that informed warning, that would be me gagged.”
McConnell’s attorneys had requested that the case be dismissed on Tuesday, but the motion was rejected.
District Judge Liam McNally is expected to issue his ruling in the non-jury trial on Jan. 5. McConnell could face jail time or a fine if convicted.
“I am going to reserve my judgment. I want to consider all the points raised in submissions,” McNally said.