Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Christian preacher on trial for 'hate crime'

On May 18, 2014, James McConnell, pastor of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, preached a sermon on 1 Tim 2:5: "There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."

"There is one God. But what God is Paul referring to?" he asked. It was not, he said, Allah, the god of the Muslims. He went on to talk about the errors of Islam. "Islam," he said. "is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."

A video of the sermon, like the videos of lots of sermons these days, was loaded on the internet. The Belfast Islamic Centre complained to police. Police began to investigate a possible hate crime.

McConnell issued a public apology to anyone he had unintentionally offended, but refused to accept an "informed warning" from the police. The prosecution service decided he should be charged under the 2003 Communications Act with sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.

McConnell said the decision to prosecute him and not extremist Muslim preachers in Britain showed that Christians were being persecuted.

"I have no hatred in my heart for Muslims. My church funds medical care for 1,200 Muslim children in Kenya and Ethiopia. I have never hated Muslims. I have never hated anyone. The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach. It's ridiculous.

"I believe in freedom of speech. I defend the right of any Muslim cleric to preach against me or Christianity. I most certainly don't want any Muslim cleric prosecuted, but I find it very unfair that I'm the only preacher facing prosecution."

These facts are not new. They have been well publicised, on both sides of the Atlantic. So why do I mention them now? Because later this week is the date scheduled for Mr McConnell's first day in court.

The Crown plans to call eight witnesses for the prosecution. Mr McConnell's solicitor plans to turn it into a landmark trial with a range of political, religious and academic witnesses from across the UK to give evidence regarding freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Hate crime or freedom of speech? It looks like being an interesting case.

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