Pastor James McConnell retired from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle last year

James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell said it was time to “completely hand over the reins”

A Belfast pastor who In May of last  year called Islam “heathen” and “satanic”  announced his retirement as minister at a north Belfast church last September.

Pastor James McConnell, of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, was questioned by police in June about his remarks.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson was heavily criticised when he backed Mr McConnell. He later made a public apology.

Mr McConnell has suffered from ill health over the past three years.

He had a heart attack and underwent a quadruple-bypass operation. He is also suffering from cancer.

Announcing his immediate retirement on Monday september 1st last year, Mr McConnell said he had been considering his position for the past 18 months.

He said it was time to “completely hand over the reins to Pastor David Purse and the pastors who assist him”.

Mr McConnell, 77, had been a minister at Whitewell for 57 years.

Speaking to his congregation in north Belfast on 18 May, Mr McConnell said “a new evil had arisen” and “there are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain”.

“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell,” he said.

Mr Robinson was heavily criticised when he backed Mr McConnell. Mr Robinson later visited the Belfast Islamic Centre and made a public apology for his comments.

In June, Mr McConnell was questioned by police about his remarks. He apologised for any offence caused.

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Mr McConnell was speaking at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast

“I had no intention of causing any offence or insulting any member of the Muslim community,” he said.

On Tuesday September 2nd, a spokesperson for the Public Prosecution Service, said: “An investigation file has been received from police and is under consideration.

In a statement this week, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said the preacher had refused to accept a warning which, if he had accepted it, meant the case would not have gone to court.

In his retirement statement, Mr McConnell said: “I still believe that radical Muslim ideology and doctrine poses a huge threat to this country and to the world.

“In support of my stance against radical Islam, I received thousands of emails, cards and hundreds of phone calls and gifts left to the church, from all sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland, all over the UK, western Europe, the US, and indeed some from the middle east.”

A PPS spokeswoman said: “I can confirm that following consideration of a complaint in relation to an internet broadcast of a sermon in May 2014, a decision was taken to offer an individual an informed warning for an offence contrary to the Communications Act 2003.“That offence was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive. The offer of an informed warning was refused by the defendant and accordingly the matter is now proceeding by way of a summary prosecution in the Magistrates Court.”

Pastor McConnell initially defended his remarks last May but, following a huge public outcry he apologised for any offence or distress caused.

Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Pastor McConnell confirmed he will go to jail rather than back down.

“Oh yes. I believe I have been right in what I have been doing so I am not going to apologise,” he said. “I have apologised to the Muslim people because I don’t want to hurt people but as a preacher, even my own congregation when I am preaching…I hurt people…and you hurt people unconsciously.

“Okay, I said that the Muslim religion is Satanic and that it is spawned in Hell and I believe that with all my heart. But equally they believe that Christianity is spawned in hell and equally they believe that Christianity is Satanic; they even say America, which is a Christian country, is ‘the great Satan’.”

He cites the case of ‘Satanic Verses’ author Salman Rushdie in his defence – “because he printed the book, his life was threatened and he hid himself for a number of years”.

And he refers to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which saw its staff massacred by Islamic fundamentalists in January after printing a cartoon of Muhammed.

“My life was threatened after that,” he said. “The police phoned me a few days later and told me to watch myself and be careful.”

His church feeds and provides medical care to 1200 mainly Muslim children weekly in Kenya and Ethiopia, he says, insisting he bears “no hatred” for any Muslim.

And he is scathing of the decision to prosecute him, which he places on the same level as the recent civil action against Ashers Bakery in Belfast, which was found to have discriminated against a gay customer.

The court actions, he believes, are a move “against Christianity” and in particular evangelicals who “believe in the finished work of Christ on Calvary’s cross… that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s son, cleanseth us from all sin”.

“I believe that passionately and I am standing up for that. I would denounce anything else contrary to that as Satanic.”

His solicitor, Joe Rice, said that his client originally attended Newtownabbey police station voluntarily for interview on June 6 last year, for possible public order offences related to hate speech.

“No charges have been laid under that order presumably because the evidential test for prosecution wasn’t met,” he said.

The crown case is that the sermon contained “grossly offensive” content, with an aggravating feature of “hostility” and “religion” which they firmly reject.

However this is setting a very serious precedent, he believes. “You can imagine people going to various different churches; they don’t like what they hear from the priest or pastor or reverend. They make a complaint to the police and the police might then find themselves obliged to investigate.”

The case will be heard in the magistrates court – the charges gave no option for a jury trial, he notes.

If convicted his client could face six months in jail and a substantial fine although there is also a right to appeal to the County Court in Belfast.

The preliminary hearing is on August 7 with the full hearing in November or December.

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