James McConnell, the 78-year-old Christian pastor in Northern Ireland who came under fire for a sermon delivered last year in which he branded Islam as "heathen" and "Satanic", has refused to back down despite facing six months in jail if convicted.
McConnell, who is battling cancer, delivered the sermon in question to his congregation at the evangelical Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast in May of 2014. The pastor made his comments about Islam while defending Sudanese mother Meriam Ibrahim, who was charged with apostasy by a Muslim court and sentenced to death after marrying a Christian man.
"The Muslim religion was created many hundreds of years after Christ. Muhammad, the Islam Prophet, was born around the year A.D. 570, but Muslims believe that Islam is the true religion," he preached. "Now, people say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so, but I don't trust them."
McConnell continued, "Islam's ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teaching of the holy scriptures. Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."
Local authorities deemed these remarks "grossly offensive," and because the sermon was also streamed online, police also found him in violation of the United Kingdom's 2003 Communications Act.
The pastor's legal team argued that the preacher didn't intend to offend anyone with his comments: "I never had any intention whatsoever of hurting any one of them, and I can say that before the judge and before the Almighty God," the pastor said during the trial. "It never entered my head that someone would take me up on that. I was preaching this in the confines of my own church. There are Muslims there who know me and understand me. It never entered my head."
However, prosecutors charged that the pastor's statement about not trusting the "good Muslims in Britain" are what directly violated the Communications Act of 2003, as it's a clear stance against the majority of Muslims, BBC reported.
"He is preaching a sermon, he is instructing, he is wishing people to listen. There is clear evidence that he intended to use those words," prosecutor David Russell said in court, according to the Belfast Telegraph. "They were not a slip of the tongue. It is a straightforward case."
When asked by prosecuting barrister David Russell which Muslims he excluded when he referred to a "majority," Pastor McConnell clarified that he does, in fact, trust a minority of Muslims, but not the majority "Because of their Sharia law."
As reported by the Gospel Herald, the pastor also emphasized this belief in an open letter written prior to the trial.
"As I have said many times I refuse to be gagged and if necessary will go to prison; but be assured, when I come out I will start again and preach the truth of the gospel!" he wrote. "Remember - we are standing for freedom of speech; freedom of worship and freedom of expression!"
Defense barrister Philip Mateer urged the court to find the pastor not guilty, describing him as a man of "superlative good character" who helped drug addicts and other "down and outs" that "watery, middle-class clergymen" might consider as "untouchables".
Mateer also argued that although the pastor was "unrepentant" for preaching the gospel, he is sorry for any offense his words may have caused.
Judge Liam McNally will issue his opinion on January 5, 2016.