A Northern Irish Evangelical Christian preacher who described Islam as “satanic” and “the spawn of the devil” during one of his sermons was found not guilty on Tuesday of broadcasting grossly offensive remarks.
Pastor James McConnell, who has been supported by some leading politicians in the British province, was charged over his comments in the 2014 sermon, which was delivered in the independent church he founded and streamed live on the internet.
Judge Liam McNally said McConnell was “entitled to criticise Islam in a robust manner”, and that his comments amounted to “nothing other than a bout of name calling”.
The case comes against the background of growing anti-Islamic sentiment from some quarters in Europe, particularly far-right parties such as France’s National Front.
“I am very happy. I thought I was going down,” McConnell, whose 2,600-capacity Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast is recognised as a Protestant church but also has Roman Catholic members, told Reuters after the judgement.
McConnell added that he would “do it again but word it differently”.
The 78-year-old pastor, who recently retired after 60 years of preaching, denied the charges of 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, citing freedom of expression.
The judge said he believed the preacher did not set out to cause offence and was “preaching to the converted rather than the worldwide internet”.
“The court needs to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances,” he said.
HEAL THE PAST
McConnell was initially defended by Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and called upon another senior minister of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – which shares power in Northern Ireland’s devolved government – as a character witness.
“I am very pleased for the pastor but even more pleased for the concept of free speech in a society such as our own where people … are allowed to say what they believe and say it publicly,” said DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who was among supporters who sang “Praise the Lord” as McConnell left the courthouse.
Robinson, who succeeded firebrand cleric Ian Paisley as first minister and will retire next week, said in defence of McConnell in 2014 that he did not trust Muslims who were fully devoted to Sharia law but would have no difficulty in a Muslim “going to the shops” for him. Robinson later apologised for the remarks.
Mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists, most of them Protestants, are obliged to rule the province together under a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence during which more than 3,600 people died.
Some rights groups said that whether the remarks were legal or not, questions remained over what standards a preacher or minister of a religious order should be held to.
“I don’t think we can heal the legacy of the past when comments like that are made,” said Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities.