BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A pastor in Northern Ireland who was prosecuted with a hate crime for denouncing the Islamic religion during a Sunday sermon has been declared not guilty of both charges leveled by the prosecution.
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. He was officially charged with the improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be transmitted through such network, since the sermon streamed online.
On Tuesday, Judge Liam McNally declared McConnell not guilty of both charges, stating that although the pastor’s remarks could be considered offensive, they did not rise to the level of gross offense. He cautioned against criminalizing speech simply due to potential offense.
“The courts need to be very careful not to criminalize speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive,” McNally stated. ”It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.”
McConnell said following the verdict that while he agrees his words were harsh, it was not his intent to hurt Muslims, but to rather express his disagreement with Islamic theology.
“There was no way I was out to hurt them. I wouldn’t hurt a hair on their head,” he told reporters outside the courthouse. “But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in.”
“If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them,” McConnell continued, “but their theology and their beliefs—I am totally against them.”
He agreed with concerns that similar prosecutions may be leveled against Christians in the future.
“The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) needs to explain why this case was brought and assure everyone that this will not happen again,” Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance of Northern Ireland told the BBC.