Northern Ireland

Pastor James McConnell: Trial filled with moments of theology, ideology and comedy

Pastor James McConnell denies two charges relating to a sermon he gave in a church last year Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pastor James McConnell denies two charges relating to a sermon he gave in a church last year

The three-day trial of Pastor James McConnell was filled with moments of theology, ideology and comedy.

No-one disputed the seriousness of the issues at stake, but that did not stop the participants - including the judge - indulging in some humour.

At the start of the trial, people in the public gallery were struggling to hear the defence barrister Philip Mateer QC.

Judge Liam McNally asked him to speak up a little, saying: "Pretend you're a preacher."

When Mr Mateer briefly made reference to the Ashers bakery 'gay cake' case, the judge interrupted him immediately.

"I think I've enough on my plate in this case," he said with a smile, and politely asked the barrister to change the subject.

The case centred on a 39-minute long sermon Pastor McConnell delivered at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on Sunday, 18 May last year, which was broadcast live on the internet.

As well as criticising Islam, the veteran pastor ventured back into history and attacked King Henry VIII, calling him an "auld reprobate".

Defending the sermon, Pastor McConnell's legal team insisted he had not set out to offend anyone.

The judge raised his eyebrows and muttered: "He didn't miss out on Henry VIII."

Everyone laughed, including the 120 supporters of the pastor who were packed into Court 12 of the Laganside courts complex in Belfast.

They filled the public gallery, as well as extra seating on the side of the courtroom which is usually reserved for police officers.

Pastor McConnell sat in front of them, beside his wife Margaret, son-in-law Norman and his two daughters Julie and Linda.

Aged 78, with no criminal record, his legal team said that rather than facing a possible conviction, he should be rewarded by the state for his Christian service and work with vulnerable people in society, like drug and alcohol addicts.

However, the prosecution barrister David Russell said the defence team were missing the point.

"He is not on trial for his beliefs," said Mr Russell.

Image caption The case has been heard at the Laganside courts complex in Belfast

The issue was the words he used about Islam in that controversial sermon.

Significantly, the key words in the case were not the ones which grabbed the headlines, when he described Islam as "satanic, heathen and spawned in hell".

Instead, the prosecution focused on this line from the sermon: "People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don't trust them."

Verdict

Mr Russell argued that the sentence was "grossly offensive" and that it breached the Communications Act for a man of influence to broadcast such a message through the internet.

Pastor McConnell insisted repeatedly he did not mean to offend anyone.

"I was completely unaware that I'd caused offence until Mr (Stephen) Nolan rang me (from the BBC)," he said.

It is now up to the judge to decide whether the sermon broke the law or not.

He will deliver his verdict on Tuesday 5 January.

Before leaving court, Judge McNally thanked everyone involved in the trial.

He added: "I want to wish you all a happy - and holy - Christmas."

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