A Catholic priest will join forces with a DUP MP and a Muslim cleric to support Pastor James McConnell when he goes on trial next week for branding Islam “Satanic”.
Father Patrick McCafferty and the DUP’s Sammy Wilson are both on the defence witness list in the landmark case, which opens in Belfast Magistrates Court next Monday.
Fr McCafferty, a parish priest in Crossgar, last night told the Belfast Telegraph: “I will be delighted to give evidence on behalf of Pastor McConnell. We don’t see eye-to-eye on many things but his prosecution is an absolute outrage.
“There is no public interest in dragging a clergyman who is nearly 80 years of age and battling cancer into court. The police and the Public Prosecution Service need to wise up and leave the poor man alone.”
Pastor McConnell faces up to six months in jail if convicted over a sermon delivered in the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle last year in which he branded Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic”.
Also on the defence witness list are prominent Muslim academic and London cleric Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini and Pastor Nick Park, the director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.
Pastor McConnell’s solicitor Joe Rice said: “In this landmark case in defence of freedom of speech I am delighted that we are able to rely on the support of people from many different backgrounds.
“They will accompany my client into court and they have all offered to give evidence for the defence. We have built a rainbow coalition on this massively importantly issue.
“We are heartened that those from so many faiths and none have laid aside theological differences to join together in support of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.”
The case, which is expected to last three days, will be heard by District Judge Liam McNally.
Pastor McConnell has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with making “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam. His sermon was streamed on the internet.
The 78-year-old firebrand preacher has said he will go to jail rather than retract his comments.
The prosecution will call five witnesses, mostly police officers involved in the case. Notably, the Crown is not calling any of the four Muslims who contacted the PSNI to complain about Pastor McConnell’s sermon.
The main prosecution witness was expected to be Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre.
Seven months after he reported the pastor to the police, Dr Al-Wazzan was himself embroiled in controversy for praising Islamic State. He will not now be giving evidence at the trial.
Fr McCafferty claimed that Pastor McConnell had previously said “far worse things” about the priest’s own religion than he had about Islam.
“I heard him make some very offensive remarks about Catholicism but it never entered my head to go crying to the police about it,” the priest said.
“I went to hear him preach and I confronted him afterwards. I told him that he had got it wrong about Catholic Church doctrine on many fronts. We sat down and had a cup of coffee together and talked it through.
“Facing the things that divided us in an adult way was a very positive experience for us both and we became friends.”
Fr McCafferty said he disagreed with Pastor McConnell’s remarks about Islam. “I’d never have preached a sermon like that against any other religion.
“But it’s not an issue for anybody to go running to the authorities about. Even at this late stage, the PPS should catch themselves on and abandon this farcical prosecution.
“It is ludicrous that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on this charade when we can’t afford to grit the roads in winter and hospital waiting lists are spiralling.”
The Catholic priest added that if Pastor McConnell was convicted it would have repercussions for clerics from all religions.
“What will the State do next: place plants in every single church across the north of Ireland to monitor what we’re saying?” he said. “I wonder if they are monitoring what’s being preached in all the mosques in Britain.”
Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a senior fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute, will also be in court to support the evangelical preacher.
He said he had “grave concerns” about Pastor McConnell’s prosecution and “strongly upheld the moral right” of people of all faiths to freely debate issues.
“Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East, it is a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we defend the freedom of citizens to debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites physical violence against others,” he said.
DUP MP Mr Wilson, who is a friend of Pastor McConnell’s, said he never should have charged in the first place.
The pastor had been prosecuted because “there is a narrow, politically correct Taliban who want to corral us all into thinking, saying, speaking as they believe we should”.
Mr Wilson added: “If we allow that to happen, we’ll be a poorer society.”