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’.
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.