By BosNewsLife News Center with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BELFAST/LONDON (BosNewsLife)– An outspoken evangelical pastor who called Islam “satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell” has been found not guilty of broadcasting hate speech by a Belfast court. The acquittal of Senior Pastor James McConnell was welcomed by the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, part of a group representing two million British evangelical Christians.
“Today’s verdict is a victory for common sense and freedom of speech,” the group told BosNewsLife in a statement. However it also cautioned that “until the law is changed or clear guidance is issued, there will still be concern about further prosecution” of Christians.
The Alliance urged Britain’s Public Prosecution Service to explain why this case was brought and assure everyone that this will not happen again. “This case contains challenges to both the State and the Church. It is vital that the State does not stray into the censorship of church sermons or unwittingly create a right not to be offended,” the Alliance said.
Yet, the group also cautioned that “the Church must steward its freedom of speech responsibly, so as to present Jesus in a gracious and appealing way to everyone.”
The 78-year-old McConnel, who pastors Belfast’s Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle congregation, was prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act after one of his sermons was broadcast in May 2014 via the Internet. In it McConnell said: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
He also compared Muslims to the feared Irish Republican Army (IRA), saying there were cells spread across Britain. “Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them.”
When asked by media why he made the comments, the pastor said Islam is against Biblical teaching. “The Bible says there is one God the father and one Lord Jesus Christ and that is what I believe and that is what Christianity is all about,” he added.
McConnell also praised Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who was condemned for his 1968 speech warning of the dangers of unchecked immigration. “Enoch Powell was right and he lost his career because of it,” McConnell explained.
“Enoch Powell was a prophet and he told us that blood would flow in the streets and it has happened.”
However at his trial the pastor made clear he did not want to hurt Muslims. “I was attacking the theology of Islam. I was not attacking any individual Muslim,” he told the court. “I didn’t realise that good Muslim people would be hurt.”
Several high-profile politicians, including Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds and former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson also pledged support for the pastor.
Additionally, several Muslims and atheists supported him amid concern about the risk to free speech.
McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper earlier that he would refuse to pay any fine the judge imposed and was prepared to go to prison for his beliefs. “It’s a matter of principle,” he stressed. “Paying a fine would be an admission of guilt and I have said from the beginning that I am an innocent man. I know that not paying a fine means that people eventually end up in jail and I am prepared to accept that.”
And, “I have said from the beginning of all this that I am willing to go to jail for my beliefs and that is still the case. I’m not going to start running scared at this late stage,” he added.
“I don’t want to sit in a prison cell but I’d rather do time than pay a fine for something that I don’t believe is a crime.”
The case comes amid mounting concern among rights groups about what they perceive as a growing crackdown in Britain on devoted Christians for alleged hate speech or open expression of their Christian faith on streets or in their working places.
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