The prosecution’s case against Pastor McConnell consisted of a DVD of the church service where he said of Muslims “But I don’t trust them” followed by more recordings, both audio and visual, from the BBC. It soon became apparent that a BBC ‘shock jock’, Stephen Nolan, had gone out of his way to manufacture a scandal where none existed. There is a difference between people who happen to hear a sermon genuinely getting offended, and the media contacting people who have never heard the sermon and inviting them to get offended!
Interestingly, the one person on the broadcasts who claimed to be offended, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who had previously been described in the media as ‘the chief prosecution witness,’ did not appear in court. This may or may not have been linked to the fact that he had become embroiled in controversy himself by publicly praising Islamic State for making the city of Mosul (where Christians have suffered savage persecution) “the most peaceful city in the world.” Even though everyone in the courtroom was aware of this, the judge seemed keen to prevent any discussion of it. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and thinking that you couldn’t make this stuff up!
The prosecution also read out a transcript of a police interview, where Pastor McConnell had been interviewed about a different charge than the one he was eventually charged with. The police officer who carried out the interview gave testimony that he was concerned that the pastor had mentioned “cells of Muslims” who were carrying out terrorist activity, and that this was similar to the activities of the IRA in the past. Mentioning the IRA, said the police officer, might stir up anti-Muslim hatred. I must admit that I personally found this to be incomprehensible. The whole world knows that there Al Qaeda and Islamic State have terrorist cells, and that the cell-structure they use is indeed one that has been used by other terrorist groups.
Under questioning from the defence lawyer, the police officer did admit that Pastor McConnell had an exemplary character, had a perfect right to choose whom he did and did not trust, and had apologised if his remarks had unwittingly hurt or caused offence to any individual Muslim.
And that was the prosecution case. There were no witnesses testifying as to how they had been offended by Pastor McConnell’s words. The prosecutor made a speech in which he acknowledged the pastor’s human rights to practise his faith, but argued that Muslims also have human rights to practise their faith (which of course they do) and that must not be interfered with. He didn’t go on to explain how the pastor’s words (“But I don’t trust them”) had interfered in any way whatsoever with even one single Muslim’s right to practise their faith.
At this point the defence lawyer made an application for the case to be summarily dismissed since the prosecution had failed to make their case. I must admit that I had thought the judge would agree to this. However, after taking a break to consider the matter, the judge ruled that the trial should continue.
Sitting with Pastor McConnell, I could see the toll that this trial was having on his family. He himself, although 78 years old, was still in robust good humor. He made a point of going to greet many of his friends and supporters in the public gallery. But the stress these events placed on his loved ones was distressing to see.
In tomorrow’s blogpost I will conclude this series of articles by describing the defence’s presentation of its case and the end of the trial.