Controversial preacher James McConnell says he faces up to six months in jail for calling Islam satanic. In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Pastor McConnell last night defiantly said he'd go to prison rather than withdraw the remarks.
"I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me," he said. "They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time. I have no regrets about what I said. I do not hate Muslims but I denounce Islam as a doctrine and I make no apologies for that. I will be pleading 'not guilty' when I stand in the dock in August."
Pastor McConnell's solicitor Joe Rice vowed to fight the case "tooth and nail".He called for the PPS to withdraw the charges and said pursuing the case was "an absolute waste of scarce public funds".He revealed plans to turn the case into a landmark trial and call a range of political, religious and academic witnesses from across the UK to give evidence "in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of religion".
In an interview in his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, Pastor McConnell spoke for the first time about the serious health issues he faced. And he revealed that after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the PSNI had warned him that his life was in danger. He said the decision to prosecute him, and not extremist Muslim preachers in Britain, showed that Christians were being "persecuted" by the authorities.
Pastor McConnell has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive". The charges centre on a sermon he gave in his church last year in which he said "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell". The sermon was streamed on the internet.
Pastor McConnell said that the charges against him were symbolic of the "persecution" Christians are currently facing. "It is a case of back to the future. In the first century, the apostles were jailed for preaching the gospel. Early Christians were boiled in oil, burnt at the stake and devoured by wild beasts. If they faced that and kept their faith, I can easily do six months in jail."
Mr Rice said: "...I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If we're moving into a genuinely pluralist society, these freedoms must be extended to Christians as much as they are to others."
Mr Rice said that the Crown planned to call eight witnesses in Pastor McConnell's prosecution. "Rest assured we will call many, many more. This will be a landmark case with leading political, religious and academic figures giving evidence.I suspect the trial will have to be moved to the High Court because Laganside courts won't be big enough to accommodate it."
While Pastor McConnell will appear in court in August, Mr Rice doesn't expect the full case to be heard until December.
It is utterly absurd that they would be prosecuting this man for telling the truth as he sees it by his God-given light. I'm certainly glad he's fighting.