This week, a remarkable trial unfolded in court in Belfast. Billed in the media as the “Satanic Islam Trial”, it centred around a sermon preached by Pastor James McConnell at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in 2014. During his sermon, which was on Christ being our Mediator and Ransom, Pastor McConnell referred to Islam as ‘Satanic’ and ‘heathen’.
Following discussion about the sermon on BBC TV and radio, it was reported that the pastor was being investigated for hate speech, and, much later, that he was to be prosecuted.
I contacted the defence solicitors and offered to appear as a witness on Pastor McConnell’s behalf. I was in court each day for the whole proceedings, and sat beside Pastor McConnell to encourage and support him and his family. Some have asked me why I would do so, given that I hold very different views to him when it comes to politics and immigration. So, over the next three days, I will be posting my perspective on this case.
The reason I got involved was because the prosecution had serious implications for freedom of speech. Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to God. We also believe that any false religious message that points a different way to God is, by definition, from the evil one. So, while I might not have expressed it in the terms Pastor McConnell did, he was being entirely consistent with 2000 years of Christian belief in what he said. And he has a perfect right to preach that, just as a Muslim should also have the right to voice his opinion that my religion is satanic and heathen!
If different religions are to co-exist in a peaceful modern society, then we need to able to preach our respective beliefs. Pastor McConnell, like anyone else, has a human right to manifest his religious beliefs under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no human right to prevent you getting offended by someone else’s beliefs!
I was also concerned that there appeared to be an anti-religious bias in bringing such a prosecution. Secular figures have made statements against religions that were as strong as Pastor McConnell’s – yet they have not been prosecuted. For example, Richard Dawkins has referred to Islam as “the greatest evil in the world”. Stephen Fry has described the Jews as having “stored up more misery for mankind than any other group of people in the history of the planet, and they’re doing it to this day.” So why does the Crown Prosecution Service choose to pursue a 78-year old retired pastor rather than an eminent scientist or a highly popular entertainer? It was evidently either due to anti-religious bias or simply that, like all bullies, they went for what they perceived as a soft target.
I value fairness and religious freedom. I also hate bullies. So I contacted Pastor McConnell’s defence team and offered to appear as a witness on his behalf. So it was that I turned up at the courthouse on Monday, scheduled to appear as part of a ‘rainbow coalition’ of witnesses alongside a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest and a Member of Parliament.
Upon arrival I went over to greet Pastor McConnell. We had last met over 20 years previously. He asked me to bring a chair over and sit with him, and I was happy to do so. So I ended up having the best possible front-row seat for the three days that followed.
In tomorrow’s blogpost I’ll explain why the courtroom ended up viewing an entire Pentecostal worship service, and why the charges that were brought demonstrate both a vindictive assault on religion, and yet also vindicated our core religious freedoms to preach our faith.