The Hidden Religious Revolution in Ireland

It’s 5.30pm on a Sunday evening in central Dublin. Just off O’Connell Street, tourists in Guinness t-shirts tramp past yet another of Dublin’s fine old churches without giving it a second glance. A typical scene that seems to embody the post-Christian secularity of our capital city. Then you step inside that old church building, and your perceptions are transformed.

Every one of the dark wooden pews is crammed to capacity. The balcony is full to overflowing. To one side of the ornate pulpit a 50-voice choir, their images being projected onto a huge screen at the front, is singing in beautiful harmonies. Over 700 worshippers, all of them adults, are listening in rapt attention. Downstairs, over 200 children are engrossed in Sunday School classes. It’s hard to remember that, just yards away, open-top buses are rumbling past.

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You have stumbled into one of the many manifestations of a religious revolution of which tourists, and most Irish people, are completely unaware – even though it is taking place right under our noses. This congregation is just one of dozens of Romanian Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that meet across Ireland. Some are quite small, but others are fast outgrowing any venue that they can rent. Last month another Romanian Church, to the west of the city, was granted planning permission to construct a new building to seat over 1000 worshippers each week.

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And it’s not just Romanians that are meeting in this way. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, a denomination founded in Nigeria, has over 100 congregations in the Irish Republic. You can add to that the many Filipino churches, Indian churches, Brazilian churches, Russian-speaking churches, Korean churches, Chinese churches and hundreds of other congregations that cater predominantly to the New Irish.

Many of these new churches meet in converted warehouses. On one single Industrial Estate in Dublin, I counted 14 different churches meeting on a Sunday – some of them sharing a building, with one congregation meeting there in the morning and another in the afternoon. An Estate Agent who specialises in commercial property commented to me, “If it wasn’t for these churches, I’d have been out of a job during the recession!”

It’s not just the New Irish who are participating in this religious revolution. Certainly it is rare to encounter any Evangelical congregation that does not include at least a sprinkling of worshippers from other nations, but churches where the New Irish are in the minority are also experiencing significant growth. In most Irish cities and large towns you can find congregations of several hundred, some of them holding two or three services in a row each Sunday because their buildings are far too small to accommodate their growth. Just today I heard about a Pentecostal church in Cork running out of communion wine this weekend because they were overwhelmed with people coming to church services.

So are we likely to see Irish Evangelical megachurches? When I was studying the sociology of religion 25 years ago, the term ‘megachurch’, imported from the United States, referred to a congregation that regularly attracted over 1000 worshippers to a Sunday service. Today, since such churches have mushroomed to the point where they are two a penny, a megachurch is defined as a congregation of over 2000.

I doubt whether, anytime soon, we will see churches of tens of thousands as are found in many US cities, or even gatherings of hundreds of thousands as occurs in Asia. No-one knows exactly how many Evangelicals there are in Ireland, but I personally know of at least three Pentecostal churches in the Irish Republic that attract congregations of over 1000, and it is no longer unusual to encounter churches that number several hundred. It certainly appears, from the experience of other countries, that increased secularisation provides an environment in which such churches thrive. Increased diversity, and the erosion of near-monopolies of religion by institutional denominations, is good news for forms of religion that lay a large stress on personal choice and decision. Also, such churches, having never been part of the political or cultural power structures in the State, are generally unaffected by the scandals that have disillusioned so many.

While one’s first experience of a large Evangelical or Pentecostal church in Ireland can be disorientating, we should maintain a sense of perspective. Such Christians are still a tiny minority in our country. Yet their growth, often hidden under our noses and largely undocumented, is significant and has something to contribute to the kind of nation we are becoming.

Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland. He is also Pastor of the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda, County Louth, a congregation comprising worshippers from over 40 nationalities.

Childermass -Rooting Christmas in Reality

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Today, 28th December, is traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents, or Childermass. The biblical account of Herod’s mass slaughter of young children can be found in Matthew 2:13-18. It is a reminder that Christmas is more than just meaningless merriment. Rather it is about God intervening and bringing hope into a world of often indescribable cruelty and darkness.

Childermass reminds us of two contemporary key human rights issues. One is the issue of migrants and refugees. Jesus and His earthly family had to flee to Egypt as refugees to escape political persecution. Today, in the Middle East, millions of young children are caught up in similar desperate migrations.

But Childermass also reminds us how children are often the victims of the choices of others. The choices made by the ‘wise’ men (who weren’t very wise at all) and King Herod meant death for the young children who were denied any choice in the matter. Which highlights the crassness of those in Ireland’s pro-abortion lobby who are campaigning to have the nation’s Constitutional protection of unborn children repealed. It’s hard to believe that someone thought it was appropriate to celebrate the Nativity with a pro-abortion slogan and created the hashtag #choiceforxmas.

Sadly it demonstrates that the human race, after more than 2000 years, still has a long way to go in the search for decency and humanity.

Trusting Women

Organisations pushing abortion are attempting to portray those who are concerned about the rights of the unborn child as being ‘anti-women.’ This includes a silly, but oft-repeated, claim that those who wish to  protect the unborn child don’t trust women.

Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that provides Constitutional protection for the unborn child. There is now a huge public debate and campaign designed to change Ireland’s laws (which requires a Referendum) so as to allow abortion on demand. The Government has announced the appointment of a Constitutional Convention to consider the matter, and a Referendum now looks inevitable.

Leading the campaign for abortion is Amnesty International (formerly a Human Rights organisation, but now pursuing an agenda with includes legalising prostitution – which would almost certainly increase people trafficking – and abortion) and the Irish Labour Party (who portrayed themselves in the last election as the only party that could deliver legalisation of abortion and were decimated in the polls). They are supported by pro-abortion forces overseas including George Soros (a Hungarian billionaire fund manager who is funding Amnesty International’s abortion campaign) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (an abortion provider whose stated goal is to increase its market share of abortion services).

Earlier this year the BPAS launched a campaign to remove all legal restrictions whatsoever against abortion in the UK – thus making it legal to abort a child right up to the moment of birth for any reason whatsoever. Their campaign uses the slogan ‘We Trust Women’ (with the obvious implication that the rest of us don’t trust women.

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The problem with this slogan is that nobody would ever dream of using such a poor argument in any other area of life. If you take any group of people as a whole, you might trust them in general, but that does not exempt them from laws that are designed to protect the vulnerable.

I trust mothers to care for their toddlers. The vast majority of women care for their infant children in ways that are selfless and, at times, quite heroic. Yet we still have laws that make it illegal for parents to leave their children unattended in a car on a hot summer’s day. Should we campaign for the repeal of such laws on the basis that we aren’t trusting mothers? Are such laws caused by mother-hating old men? Of course not! We trust parents in general, but we still enact compassionate laws to protect tiny children from the tiny minority of parents who betray that trust.

Similarly, most husbands care for their wives. As a church minister I conduct weddings, and I trust each bridegroom to treat his bride with honour and respect. But I still support laws that make it illegal for a man to rape his wife. Why? Because trust extended to husbands as a general group does not remove society’s responsibility to protect women from husbands who are brutes and bullies.

And so it is with pregnancy. We trust pregnant mothers to care for their unborn child – and the great majority of them do. They don’t increase the market shares of Ryanair or the BPAS by travelling overseas for an abortion. They take every precaution to protect the little life they are carrying, and encourage their husbands or partners to lay their hands on their bump to feel the baby kicking (quite convinced that what is kicking is a little person, and not a ‘clump of cells’). Many pregnant mothers talk and sing to their unborn child, and most abstain from intoxicants that might harm the child.

But we would be foolish in the extreme if we were to assume that such trust means that every pregnant mother will do what is best for their child. Not even the most ardent pro-abortion advocate would truly believe such a claim. Just walk for a few hours in the centre of any Irish town or city and you will see positive proof that a small minority of pregnant mothers will quite deliberately choose to act in ways that are detrimental to the well-being of their child – as evidenced by smoking while obviously pregnant.

In other words, extending trust to a group as a whole does not preclude recognising that a small minority within any group of human beings will act in ways that harm and abuse the weak and the defenceless. And supporting legal protection for the vulnerable does not make us anti-women or betray any lack of trust.

The ‘We Trust Women’ slogan is a dishonest and illogical attempt to marginalise and silence those who have a genuine desire to protect the Human Rights of the vulnerable. It is also used hypocritically to imply that half the population of Ireland have no right to express an opinion on this issue because they happen to be male and ‘only women should decide’ (while simultaneously embracing pro-abortion groups that are led by men and receiving financing from male billionaires).

If Ireland is going to face a Referendum on abortion then Ireland deserves a reasoned debate about abortion. That debate should be open to everyone who cares about Human Rights. Such a debate is not well-served by untruthful soundbites.

 

 

Myth Busting – Refugees & Asylum Seekers

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MYTH BUSTING – REFUGEES & ASYLUM SEEKERS

Evangelical Alliance Ireland and Tear Fund Ireland have teamed up to encourage churches and believers to show love to refugees in practical ways.

Unfortunately there are a number of myths and urban legends which, while not being based on truth or facts, create negative stereotypes and discourage God’s people from showing true compassion.

MYTH 1

“Ireland is being expected to take more than its fair share of asylum seekers and migrants”

As a percentage of our population, Ireland ranks 29th out of 45 European countries in receiving asylum seekers and refugees.  Asylum seekers comprise 0.01% of the Irish population (that is 1 out of every 10,000 people is an asylum seeker).

MYTH 2

“We are a small country, and haven’t room to accommodate so many new arrivals”

Ireland used to have a population of over 8 million, in contrast to the Republic’s current population of 4.5 million.  We have a population density of 65 people per square km (compared to the UK’s population density of 260 people per square km).

MYTH 3

“Asylum seekers and refugees put too much strain on a fragile economy”

Research in developed countries consistently reveals that refugees and asylum seekers either affect economies positively or neutrally.  Refugees are more likely to start new businesses than native-born residents.

MYTH 4

“Refugees and asylum seekers are responsible for an increasing crime wave in Ireland”

There is no statistical evidence that refugees or asylum seekers in Ireland are more likely to commit crime than the rest of the population.

MYTH 5

“Refugees are getting priority in housing, social welfare benefits, and free cars, phones and baby buggies – none of which are given to Irish people.”

No refugee or asylum seeker gets a car or phone from the State. Ireland has a scheme that gives grants to low-income families to buy a pram or baby buggy – and that scheme is equally available to all residents of the State. When it comes to housing or social welfare benefits, refugees have to go through the same processes and meet the same criteria as anyone else. Asylum seekers (those still awaiting permission to stay in the country) are placed in accommodation centres with very basic facilities and receive €19.10 per week (less than half of what asylum seekers receive in the UK).

MYTH 6

“Immigrants come here to sponge off the State and are unwilling to work”

Statistically, Irish nationals are slightly more likely to claim unemployment benefits (jobseekers benefit) than are non-nationals.

MYTH 7

“Why are we expected to do so much to help Syrian refugees when Muslim countries are doing nothing to help them?”

Turkey has received 2 million Syrian refugees. In terms of percentage of their population, that would be the equivalent of Ireland receiving 250,000. (We have actually agreed to take in 4,000).

Lebanon has received 1.2 million – that is a staggering number, actually comprising over 25% of Lebanon’s total population.

Jordan, with a total population of 6 million people, has received 600,000 refugees. They have also, since 2011, spent $6.6 billion caring for Syrian refugees. That amounts, each year, to spending 30% of their entire GDP on care of refugees. To put that figure in perspective, the most generous ‘Christian’ country in the world is Sweden, giving 1% of GDP in overseas aid. The US gives 0.19% of GDP.  Ireland gives 0.7% of GDP.

Secularism & Foolishness at FIFA

Last week I argued in an Irish Times column that political, or civic, secularism is a good thing for the Church and for society at large.

Doctrinal secularism refers to the desire to eradicate religion from the public sphere altogether. Political secularism, however, refers to the ideal of the separation of Church and State. By this definition, secularism refers to a society where religion is afforded no special privileges, but nor is it subjected to any special restrictions or penalties. In this understanding of secularism, the religious should have the same rights and opportunities as would similarly-sized groups of vegetarians, atheists, or any other voluntary associations. History demonstrates that Evangelical Christianity thrives in societies where there is freedom for all and a level playing field.

FIFA, the governing body of world football, has in recent days become a by-word for crass corruption, arrogance and  incompetence. Now they have demonstrated an appalling inability to understand free speech and how secular society operates.

Neymar, the Brazilian striker, together with Luis Suarez and Leo Messi, is one of Barcelona’s celebrated trio of goalscorers. He was one of the nominees at FIFA’s prestigious Ballon d’Or ceremony in January.  As reported by the Spanish Evangelical Alliance’s excellent Evangelical Focus news service, a video of Neymar, celebrating winning the Champions’ League, was censored, airbrushing out a “100% Jesus” slogan from his headband.

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So why did FIFA think that a reference to Jesus was unsuitable for public consumption? The answer lies in their Code of Ethics which says people linked to the organisation, “may not offend the dignity or integrity of a country, private person or group of people through contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason.”

So how does Neymar stating that he is a Christian offend anyone’s dignity or integrity? How can saying you are 100% for Jesus ever, even in the craziest of worldviews, be seen as contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory?

If an athlete identifies as a man then does that offend the integrity of women?  Does the display of one’s national flag mean you are contemptuous towards other nationalities? When Arsenal’s Chilean forward, Alexis Sanchez, speaks of coming from a background of grinding poverty then has he offended the dignity of rich people? If an athlete comes out as being gay then is that seen as denigratory towards heterosexual athletes?  Of course not! The whole point of such a non-discrimination clause in a Code of Ethics is to ensure that the participants in a sport can be seen to come from a wide range of races, colours, nationalities, genders and religions. The aim is not to pretend that we are all the same, but rather that we celebrate our differences.

So why was Neymar singled out for censorship? It demonstrates that FIFA have totally failed to understand a basic principle of living in a modern secular society. Religion should not be accorded special privileges, but neither should it be subject to special restrictions! FIFA are, in essence, treating the expression of religion (a basic human right) as a special case that is somehow dangerous or insulting to others.

We don’t want religion to be given a privileged place in sport. We don’t ask that a priest or an imam conducts prayers in the centre-circle at the Emirates Stadium before kick-off! But neither should a player’s statement of religious belief be airbrushed out of history.

For 5 Days Only – Free eBook!

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Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s new book, “Ireland: A People Shaped by Easter” is available for the next five days as a free Kindle eBook.

In the US go to: amazon.com

In the UK go to: amazon.co.uk

We have already posted free copies of the book to church pastors & leaders in Ireland. If you are a leader in the Irish Republic and have not received your copy please email Nick Park at nick@evangelical.ie

Churches in Ireland can purchase bulk copies of the book at only €1 per copy for witness purposes.  Orders of 100 copies or more include free printing of the church’s contact info on the back cover of the book.

Finally, we are looking for donors to help finance the publicity campaign for the free distribution of the book during Easter.  A crowdsource funding initiative has been set up at www.fundit.ie

Ireland: A People Shaped by Easter

Guess which nation celebrates its independence on a different date each year?

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At Easter 2016 Ireland will celebrate the Centenary of the Easter Rising.  The Rising was not just a historical event that happened to coincidentally occur on Easter Monday.  If that was the case, then it would be celebrated each year on the set day of the calendar when the Rising occurred (24th April).  But that isn’t what happens.  Whatever date Easter happens to fall upon (Easter being a moveable feast) determines the date each year that Ireland celebrates its independence.

The reason, of course, is that the rebels staged their Rising quite deliberately at Easter so that it would have a religious significance.

But Ireland has also been profoundly shaped and influenced by other Easters.  St Patrick, for example, confronted the dark forces of paganism one Easter in the 5th Century.  And, more recently, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 profoundly changed our ideas about what it means to be Irish – renouncing the territorial claim on Northern Ireland and opening the way up for the ‘New Irish.’

As part of the 1916 Easter Rising Centenary celebrations, Evangelical Alliance Ireland is publishing a paperback book – “Ireland: A People Shaped by Easter” – written by Nick Park (EAI), Ruth Garvey-Williams (Vox Magazine) and David Wilson (Agape Ministries).  The book explores these pivotal Irish Easters, and then goes on to set them in their true context – the first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead.  It shares the personal stories of Irish people who are finding the first Easter helps them incorporate these other Easters into their sense of national identity.

We are looking for evangelical churches and organisations to support the distribution of this book during Easter 2016.  If you would like to be involved, please contact Nick Park at nick@evangelical.ie

 

 

‘Satanic Islam’ Trial Verdict – Pastor McConnell Not Guilty

I am delighted to report that Pastor James McConnell has been declared not guilty in what became known as ‘The Satanic Islam Trial.’

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In previous blog posts I reported on the three days of evidence given in court in mid-December.  Pastor McConnell was prosecuted over a sermon he preached in 2014 in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast, and which was streamed over the internet.  Despite the media focusing on Pastor McConnell’s use of the terms ‘Satanic’ and ‘heathen,’ these were not the words for which he was eventually prosecuted.  The prosecution conceded that such theological language in the context of a church sermon is, even if someone finds it grossly offensive, protected under international Human Rights Conventions.

Therefore the prosecution concentrated solely on a passage in the sermon where Pastor McConnell had said that he didn’t trust Muslims.  Much of the debate during the trial was over whether he was referring to all Muslims, just to radical Islamists, or to the leadership structure of the Muslim religion.  It was also noteworthy that the prosecution narrowed their approach even more by trying to use the Communications Acts, which regulates electronic communication such as the internet, rather than any general legislation to do with hate speech.

The prosecution did not produce any witness during the trial who had been offended by Pastor McConnell’s words.  An individual who had been vaunted in the media as the prosecution’s chief witness was never called to the stand in court.  This was the same man who was subsequently recorded as praising Islamic State for making the Iraqi city of Mosul (the scene of horrific murders of Christians and others) “the most peaceful city on earth.”  Indeed, the judge, in his verdict, was of the opinion that no-one who either heard the sermon live, or listened to it being streamed on the internet, was likely to be offended.

I was not in court for the verdict today, but I have studied the transcript of the judge’s verdict in detail.  There was no jury.  The judge comes across as quite hostile to Pastor McConnell and his beliefs, and his verdict betrays a misunderstanding of some of the issues involved that would have been corrected if he had not been so quick to refuse to hear the testimony of expert witness for the defence.  To sum up the verdict, he found Pastor McConnell’s words about not trusting Muslims to be ‘offensive’ – but that they fell short of the legal definition of ‘grossly offensive.’  He also stated that it is not the task of the law to censor speech for being offensive.

This case will undoubtedly be cited in other similar court cases in future.  In that context it is important to note that the judge’s opinion was that the words which the prosecution chose to focus on (concerning trusting Muslims) were not ‘grossly offensive.’  However, he also expressed an opinion that other portions of Pastor McConnell’s sermon (as to Islam being Satanic, heathen and ‘spawned in hell’) could well be construed as grossly offensive.

The judge could not convict on those words because the prosecution conceded that they were covered by the Human Rights Convention and did not include them in its case.  The judge recognised the prosecution’s concession, but stopped short of saying anywhere in the verdict that he agreed with it.  Therefore, while I am delighted for Pastor McConnell’s sake that he has been found not guilty, I am left somewhat uneasy that the judge failed to endorse the protection afforded by Human Rights Conventions.  A concession by a prosecutor is not as reassuring as a judge’s statement would have been in a verdict!

In short, the right verdict has been reached.  This was a vindictive and nonsensical prosecution that should never have wasted taxpayers’ money in coming to court.  A retired pastor and his family have, quite wrongly, been subjected to pressure and uncertainty as to whether he would be imprisoned or not.  But the final verdict has, unfortunately, been worded in a way to leave the door open to future prosecutions when religious leaders and communities express their deeply held beliefs.

Reflections from a Belfast Courthouse

I spent three days in court in Belfast last week, supporting Pastor James McConnell as he faced an absurd prosecution for comments he made about Islam in a sermon that was streamed on the internet.  As I travelled in and out of Belfast for those three days, I couldn’t help reflecting on how much the city has changed – and how much my life has changed.

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I parked my car near the Albert Clock, where over three decades ago I used to drink in a bar called “DuBarry’s”.  I’m not saying it was a rough place, but they had a sign, with no humor intended, saying “No sex on the pool table, please” and you would sometimes find hair and dried blood on the grips of the pool cues where they had been used to smack someone across the head.

At lunch time between court sessions I enjoyed an espresso at a little cafe built on the same spot where I once used to sleep in a bombed-out house.  Then I walked past the Salvation Army hostel in Victoria Street, where I was living at the time I gave my life to Christ in February 1981.

My last time in a courtroom in Belfast was nearly 35 years ago in the old Petty Sessions Court (just yards up Chichester Street from the brand-new Laganside Courts where the McConnell case was being heard).  It had all started when a judge had previously placed me on 18-months probation for “Going Equipped for Theft.”  I had been stopped and searched while carrying a crowbar under my jacket.  Actually I was planning to bash someone’s head in with it, but once I got caught I figured I would get off more lightly for planning to commit a robbery than for planning to seriously hurt somebody!  Then, a few months later, I knelt at the front of a Salvation Army hall in Dee Street and asked Christ to come into my life.

Everything in my life changed from that moment on, but I was to discover that sometimes the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly!  One spring morning a police officer walked into into the Salvation Army hostel and handed me a court summons.  I was to go to court on a charge of being Drunk and Disorderly.  The only problem was, I had no idea what the charge was about.  Apparently, a few weeks prior to my conversion to Christ, I had been so drunk that I had managed to get in a fight, get questioned by police, and then wake up the next morning with absolutely no memory of what had happened!

Now that I had received the summons, I was ashamed to tell any of my new-found Christian brothers and sisters what had happened.  So that was how I found myself standing alone in the Petty Sessions court nearly 35 years ago. When the judge asked me how I wanted to plead, I said, “I don’t know!”  He leaned forward and peered at me over his glasses.  “What do you mean?” he asked, “How can you not know if you’re guilty or not?”   I explained that I didn’t remember anything from that night.  The judge said, “The police say they saw you drunk and fighting in the street. Do you think they’re telling the truth?”  I replied that they looked fairly honest, at least for policemen, so I guessed I did believe them.  “Well then, ” said the judge, “You’d be better off pleading guilty, then, wouldn’t you?”

So that was how I ended up pleading guilty for something I couldn’t remember.  The judge then took a look at my record, and noticed that I was already on probation over the crowbar incident.  He said, “You do realise that violating your probation means I can impose a custodial sentence?”

At that moment I understood that I was in real trouble.  I had been detained overnight a few times in police cells, awaiting court appearances the next morning, but I had never gone to prison for real.  Now it looked like it was finally going to happen – and after I had come to Christ!

At that moment the doors of the court opened, and Captain George Hardy from the Salvation Army hostel came in.  Someone had told him what was going on.  He asked for permission to speak, and explained to the judge how I had given my life to Christ and was trying to turn things around.   He told them how I felt called to be a preacher and was planning to finish my schooling and go to Bible College. Thank God the judge listened to his pleas and let me off with a fine.  As we left the courtroom both George Hardy and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Six months later the probation service decided that the change in my life was so dramatic and so real that it was a waste of time and money for them to keep supervising me.  They applied to another judge and asked him to discharge the probation order early – which he agreed to.

And, up until last week when I sat in court alongside Pastor McConnell, that was the last time I went to court in Belfast.  The city certainly has changed for the better since those days, and thank God he has changed my life for the better too!

 

My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 4 (Final)

One of the things that surprised me in this legal case, considering the issues at stake, was the amount of humor in the courtroom.  Lawyers, witnesses and even the judge were very quick to crack a joke.  At one point, when people were struggling to hear the prosecution lawyer, the judge said to him, “Pretend you’re a preacher!”  There was no jury in the trial, something that is quite common in Northern Ireland’s legal system.

There was grim humor as well, when one of the BBC radio shows that had stoked the whole controversy was replayed in court.  The man slated to be the ‘chief prosecution witness’ (who never actually appeared in court) was asked repeatedly by the show’s presenter whether he approved of stoning women to death for adultery.  There was laughter in the public gallery as he he danced around the questions and avoided answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

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Pastor McConnell, as the first to give testimony in his own defence, also proved to be a robust and humorous witness.  The prosecution lawyer badgered him, asking the same questions over and over again.  But the pastor repeatedly answered that his mistrust was not directed at all Muslims, and that he mistrusted the religion as a whole and those who were radical or violent.  He repeatedly said that there were good and trustworthy Muslims, and that he was sorry if his words had offended any of them.  He stood by the words that he had said in his sermon.  This indeed was why he was in court.  The police offered to give him a ‘caution’ – but this would have involved him admitting guilt, something he refused to do.  He was adamant that if he accepted the caution then he would, in effect, be muzzled and silenced, and as a preacher he wanted to remain free to preach the Gospel without hindrance.

A young man who runs a mission in Kenya on behalf of Pastor McConnell’s church was next to testify.  He said that the church supported the mission (and a similar one in Ethiopia) at a combined cost of over 10,000 British pounds a month.  He testified that they ran a feeding programme that catered for all without asking anyone their faith, and that during a time of drought they had distributed large quantities of free food in predominantly Islamic tribal areas.

The judge refused to allow the next witness, a Muslim imam who had flown in from England, to testify.  While recognising the imam as an expert in his field, the judge ruled that his testimony would not add anything to his own knowledge and so was inadmissable.  I found this curious.  The pastor was on trial for saying that he didn’t trust Muslims.  Here was an imam who wanted to testify that, because of radical Islamists,even he was very cautious in trusting Muslims, yet the judge would not allow him to testify!

Two character witnesses followed, who could not have been more diverse.  One was a Catholic priest and the other was Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim.  Both spoke of Pastor McConnell in glowing terms.

I was scheduled as the last witness in the case, but, just as I was about to go to the witness box, there was a hold-up.  My initial written witness statement had addressed the issues of freedom of religious speech, and the pastor’s use of the words ‘satanic’ and ‘heathen’.  But the prosecution had, at the last minute, announced that they had decided not to make a case against that terminology.

I still wanted to testify. I felt that there were important issues at stake.  By saying he didn’t trust Muslims, Pastor McConnell had used language that is used every day in religious debate.  Think about how many times you have read someone on Facebook posting that they don’t like or don’t trust Christians or atheists!  If the pastor was convicted, and if the law is to be equally applied, then the police will have to make hundreds of arrests every week!

I also wanted to point out that the pastor’s view was quite a common one within Christian circles.  Many Christians feel that they are unable to know which Muslims are radical and which are not, due to the influence of Shariah law.  Therefore they start from a default position of withholding trust until they get to know the individual better.

I had experienced the same attitude when, as a young man, I had travelled to England during an IRA bombing campaign.  Because other Northern Irish men were planting bombs in English cities, people treated me warily until they got to know me.  That was not ‘grossly offensive’ – it was understandable caution.

However, given that the judge had excluded  some expert testimony already, the defence lawyers felt it was better to rest their case without my testimony.  I must admit that I was initially frustrated.  I was all psyched up to say my piece!  But, in the end, you have to trust the lawyers to know their job best, and the most important thing was to provide Pastor McConnell with the best possible defence.  So the defence rested their case.

After both the prosecution and the defence had made their final submissions, the judge announced that he would not deliver his verdict that day, but would take take time to consider all the arguments.  He promised that a verdict will be delivered by January 5th.

So Pastor McConnell and his family will spend Christmas in a state of uncertainty, aware that he could still potentially face a six months prison term.  My own personal impression, having been in court throughout the proceedings, is that a guilty verdict would be an absolute travesty of justice.

Please do pray for Pastor McConnell and his family.  Pray also that the court’s verdict will support, rather than infringe upon, freedom of religious expression for all faiths in the UK.