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.

Neymar Jesus

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!

Easter Amazon

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:

In the UK go to:

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

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

Ireland: A People Shaped by Easter

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

Ireland - A people shaped by easter-03

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



‘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.’


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.


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’.

Mcconnell church

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.



My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 3

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.

My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 2

As described in yesterday’s blogpost I found myself sitting alongside Pastor James McConnell during his landmark trial for making ‘grossly offensive’ comments about Islam during a church sermon.  The public gallery of the court was also packed with members of Pastor McConnell’s church and other supporters, with many turned away because there was insufficient room in the courtroom to seat them.


The defence lawyers began by objecting that the prosecution’s case was so vague that no-one knew which specific words were supposed to be ‘grossly offensive’.  The media had continually focused on Pastor McConnell’s characterisation of Islam as ‘satanic’ and ‘heathen’ – causing them to dub this as ‘The Satanic Islam Trial.’

The prosecution, however, surprised me by admitting at the onset that they could not bring a case on that basis, because the pastor’s theological views, as expressed in a sermon, were protected by human rights legislation.  Therefore they were powerless to prosecute him for saying Islam was ‘satanic’ or ‘heathen.’  So ‘The Satanic Islam Trial’ wasn’t going to be about that at all – which should teach us not to believe everything we read in the newspapers!

This concession by the prosecution, admitted in open court as evidence, is hugely significant.  While not carrying the same weight as a verdict or judge’s ruling, it does set a precedent.  A crown prosecutor has admitted that clergy cannot be prosecuted in the UK for simply preaching their religious beliefs in their pulpits, even if those beliefs are unpopular or go against current trends in society.

The prosecutor also announced that they couldn’t prosecute Pastor McConnell for any of the comments he had made on subsequent TV and radio shows.  Instead they were prosecuting him under the Communications Act of 2003, based on the fact that his sermon had been streamed over the internet.

The Communications Act replaced the old Telecommunications Act of 1984, which was designed to deal with offensive and abusive phone calls.  It is supposed to address the problem of people sending abusive emails, or making threats of violence on Twitter or Facebook.  The prosecution’s resort to this piece of legislation demonstrated that they had determined to go after Pastor McConnell come what may, and were prepared to use any legal loophole to get him.

Even more surprising were the actual words that were allegedly ‘grossly offensive.’  At one stage in his sermon the pastor had said, “People say there are good Muslims in Britain.  That may be so.  But I don’t trust them.

Those five words – “But I don’t trust them” – were the ‘grossly offensive’ speech for which a 78-year-old retired pastor was being threatened with six months imprisonment!

Now, I personally wouldn’t speak of Muslims in such terms (although I think I have used such language in my own preaching when talking about bankers or politicians!).  But to characterise such language as ‘grossly offensive,’ and to exploit a legal loophole as the prosecution were doing, demonstrated to me the utter vindictiveness of the prosecution service in bringing this case to court.  This was most certainly a case of bullying by civil authorities – and the irony was that the legal loophole they were using to do so was itself designed to stop bullying on the internet!

Both the defence and prosecution legal teams insisted that the five ‘grossly offensive’ words should be set in context, and this meant playing a DVD of the sermon in question.  The judge would have been happy just to view the sermon, but the defence insisted that the court should view the service in its entirety.

What followed next was possibly unique in British legal history.  We spent two hours in a courtroom watching an entire Pentecostal worship service – the prayers, the worship, the preaching and the altar call.  People in the public gallery were worshipping, swaying from side to side, silently singing along and even raising their hands!  At one point Pastor McConnell leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s the first time I’ve seen this recording. Though I say so myself, that was a good sermon!”  Occasionally I heard an ‘Amen!’ or a ‘Hallelujah!’ coming from the public gallery.

The brief remarks about Islam were a tiny part of an overall presentation that focused on Jesus and His role as Redeemer, Mediator and Ransom.  I found myself thinking how God turns around things for His glory.  This vindictive prosecution was causing a bunch of lawyers, journalists, court officials, and a judge to hear a very expressive and easily understood presentation of the Gospel of Christ.

My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 1

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.

Court Lunch

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.


A Free Chapter from “40 Days with Jesus in the Old Testament”

40 days

My new book, “Forty Days with Jesus in the Old Testament: The Son of God Revealed in Every Book of the Jewish Scriptures” is released this weekend.  You can buy the Kindle eBook at Amazon USA ($7.99), Amazon UK (£5.29) or at your own country’s Amazon site.  You can order the paperback version online at (€10 including free delivery to anywhere in the world).

The book consists of 40 daily devotionals.  Here is a free sample chapter to whet your appetite:



Today’s Readings: Numbers 20:6-11       Numbers 21:4-9                      Numbers 24:15-19

 It should only have taken a few weeks for the Israelites to have made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Because of their disobedience, however, the journey would take forty years, with a whole generation passing from the scene.

The entire book of Numbers is set in this ‘in between’ period.  The people were no longer in Egypt, but they had not yet reached the Promised Land.  That is a fitting picture of where most of us, as Christian believers, live our lives.  We have been set free from sin and darkness, but we’re not yet enjoying all the blessings and benefits that come from Christ’s death on the Cross.  We still look forward to the promised day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

Even in this ‘in between’ place, God continued to guide His people.  A pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, led the way.  When the pillar stopped, then the people stopped and set up camp.  When the pillar moved once more, then the people packed up their tents and moved once more.

The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire represent Jesus Christ being present with His people in all circumstances while we journey through our ‘in between’ place.

Water from the Rock

At one point on their travels, the people had run out of water and were grumbling and complaining against Moses.  They wanted to return to Egypt, conveniently forgetting the agonies of their past slavery and selectively remembering the food that grew there.

God instructed Moses to stand before the people, speak to a large rock, and to trust God to cause water to flow from the rock.  Moses didn’t follow God’s instructions perfectly, preferring to make a big show of striking the rock with his staff, but that’s another story!  What matters here is that God graciously caused water to flow, thus slaking the people’s thirst.

In the New Testament, this incident is used to teach that Christ was with the Israelites in the wilderness.  The pillar of cloud, the manna and the rock that provided water were all visible manifestations of Christ’s presence.

“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

The Bronze Serpent

Later on in their wanderings, the Israelites began to grumble against God once more.  Many of them were bitten by poisonous snakes and died.  God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and to hoist it up on a pole.  Anyone who had been bitten, yet who looked at the bronze serpent in faith, was healed.

Because of the identification of the serpent with evil in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, it seems strange to us for Jesus to be represented by a serpent.  Yet He Himself made this comparison, and did so in one of the clearest Gospel messages in Scripture.  Every Christian is familiar with John 3:16.  Yet the preceding two verses compare Jesus to Moses’ bronze serpent, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” (John 3:14-15)

Theologically speaking, this makes perfect sense.  Jesus took our sin upon His shoulders, to the extent that He is actually described as having become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we, in turn, might become the righteousness of God.  The bronze serpent in the wilderness points forward to Calvary where this incredible spiritual transaction took place.

Our task is to proclaim this truth to others.  For Jesus also said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” (John 12:32)

The Star and the Sceptre

Our final reading from the book of Numbers is part of a series of prophecies from Balaam, who was hired by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites.  God intervened, so that each time Balaam tried to curse them, blessings came out of his mouth instead!  It was this incident which prompted the oft-quoted Scripture verse about our God turning curses into blessings (Nehemiah 13:2).

In his fourth prophecy, Balaam spoke about a star and a sceptre (denoting kingship) arising out of Jacob.  This saying was stored up and pondered over by scholars in eastern lands for centuries.  Over a thousand years later they saw an unusual star and followed it to Israel, asking “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews?  We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)


God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are so thankful that we have received spiritual healing and new life through looking to Jesus as the One who was lifted up on the Cross.  We acknowledge Him as our Provider when we are weary and in need of refreshing.  We seek His face as our Guide in good times and bad.  We rejoice in the knowledge that our God turns curses into blessings, and that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem for our sakes.

We pray this in Jesus’ name.