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