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Northern Irish preacher cleared of making ‘grossly offensive’ remarks about Islam

Evangelical Protestant preacher Pastor James McConnell outside Belfast Magistrates Court (PA)

An Evangelical Christian preacher in Northern Ireland has been found not guilty of making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam.

Pastor James McConnell, 78, denied two charges that related to a sermon he gave at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast in 2014, that was streamed online, in which he described Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic”.

He was charged under the 2003 Communications Act with 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.

Pastor McConnell had said he would have gone to jail rather than retract his remarks, however a judge ruled on Tuesday that while he considered the remarks offensive, he did not consider them “grossly” offensive under the law.

At Belfast Magistrates’ Court, Judge Liam McNally said: “The courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.”

The National Secular Society (NSS) has welcomed the court’s ruling. NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans described it as a “welcome reassertion of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

“While we and many others disagree strongly with the tone and content of the pastor’s remarks, a heartening and broad coalition of groups have stood up for his right to express his views,” he said.

“At a time when freedom of speech is being curtailed and put at risk in any number of ways, this is a much needed statement from the judge that free speech will be defended and that Islam is not off-limits.

“While we welcome the ruling, serious questions remain about the Public Prosecution Service’s (PPS) decision to pursue this case, particularly given that it was brought about after a complaint from a man who had to retract his praise for ISIS’s rule.”

Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who said Mosul “has become the most peaceful city in the world” under ISIS, was described as the “chief witness” for the prosecution.

The NSS wrote to the PPS urging it to call off the prosecution, however the PPS said their decision was “in the public interest.”

“The terrible effect on the exercise of free speech if Pastor McConnell had been found guilty are obvious,” Evans added.

“The right verdict has now been reached, but this case should never have been pursued.”

During the trial, a Catholic priest, Fr Patrick McCafferty, appeared as a character witness of behalf of Pastor McConnell.

The two men first met more than 20 years ago, and Fr McCafferty told the court: ““I can say that Pastor McConnell has no hatred for anyone whatsoever and the people of his church are not people who go out in this community and cause trouble, they are the exact opposite.”