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17 December 2015

The Case of Pastor James McConnell

The Case of Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell is being tried in Belfast for sending a grossly offensive message when a sermon in which he called Islam "heathen" and "satanic" was streamed on the internet. You can watch the full sermon here. The comments which caused the prosecution occur between minutes six to ten.

Following complaints after the sermon was broadcast, Police launched an investigation into whether there was a "hate crime motive" behind Pastor McConnell's remarks. The police did not seek prosecution under the hate crime legislation but did offer the Pastor an informed warning for sending a grossly offensive message under the Communications Act 2003. This informed warning, which would have stayed on criminal record for a year, was declined by the Pastor. He is now being prosecuted and could face up to six months in prison if he is found guilty by the trial.

The case has sparked global legal and media interest not least because Pastor James McConnell is an outspoken and charismatic personality. He has not shied away from the publicity which the case has created and has embraced his role as a self-styled martyr for the Christian faith.

In another newsworthy twist, the Pastor will call a Muslim scholar, a Catholic priest and a Member of Parliament as defence witnesses. Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute, thinks it is vital to defend Pastor McConnell's right to free speech. Outside Court he said,

"Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others."

The fact that a respected Muslim scholar has sprung to the defence of the Christian Pastor who is accused of making 'grossly offensive' comments about his religion is fascinating and sure to spark wider debate and raise further questions:-

·         At the time of writing the first day of the trial is under way and the Court has watched the entire worship service in which the comments were made. The defence claim that it is important the Court recognises the context of a Christian worship service where Christians declare their God to be the only true God. Is this in itself grossly offensive to Muslims or adherents to other faiths?

·         Also many of the comments, while made about Islam, could be applied to other religious or non-religious beliefs. Would the Pastor have been prosecuted if he had made the exact same comments about Satanism or atheism, which are protected as 'religious beliefs' in law?

·         The Pastor's comments which seem to be among the most contentious are, 'Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain, that may be so, but I don't trust them.' It is this labelling of a whole group of people as untrustworthy which the Prosecution seem to be focusing on as being grossly offensive. This is difficult territory. Again if the Pastor had said he didn't trust Satanists it seems unlikely that this would be particularly contentious. Also it is important to note that religion is not like race. Presumably Pastor McConnell is talking about the white English Muslim as much as he is talking about the Arabic Iranian Muslim. He does not trust a group of people because of the collective beliefs they ascribe to not because of the colour of their skin. Did Muhammad al-Hussaini find these comments 'grossly offensive?' We have previously heard about the Ashers Bakery case said it was said it is wrong to discriminate against people, but discriminating against ideas is part of everyday life. We all do it. The tricky thing is separating people from their beliefs, Muslims from Islamic belief, Christians from biblical teachings. How can the law steward this well?

  • Some of the Pastor's comments may well be described as stereotyping and many Christians would argue comments like these, in this cultural context, are deeply unhelpful in winning people to Jesus. But are they illegal? If he had said he didn't trust politicians or lawyers or bankers he may have attracted applause rather than a prosecution. In Northern Ireland many people would say they don't trust Republicans or Loyalists because of their political ideology. As we have seen in the Asher's case, political opinion is also a protected equality category alongside religious belief in Northern Ireland. Is this cultural or religious or political mistrust of other groups always wrong and/or illegal? Is the law the best way to change hearts and minds about perceived prejudice? Are those who don't trust Christians and communicate this electronically equally guilty of a criminal offence?
  • The technicality of the prosecution under the Communications Act 2003 would seem to mean that it may not be illegal to make certain comments, but communicating those same comments electronically may be illegal. So in this instance it may not have been illegal to preach the sermon but it was illegal to communicate it electronically. Is this a balance between protecting free 'speech' and policing communication or is this a case of prosecution on a technological technicality? 

The fact is that this case could affect what everyone person says in an email, tweet, Vine or Youtube post. Our everyday communications are governed by this Act and if someone decides what we have said is grossly offensive we could find ourselves in court. Many of those calling for a stricter separation of church and state are strangely silent as the state breaches that separation by monitoring the content of church sermons. This particular case is about religion, but the decision will affect everyone's freedom of expression.

Please keep an eye on our website for more comments on the outcome and implications of this case.


  Image credit- Sami Ben Gharbia under CC licence.