‘Drop case against Pastor McConnell’
The London-based National Secular Society (NSS) has added its voice to a growing number of organisations, both religious and secular, who are calling on the Northern Ireland authorities to drop a charge against pastor James McConnell, above.
According to this report, Pastor McConnell potentially faces up to six months in prison if convicted over a sermon last year in which he branded Islam “heathen” and “Satanic”.
The main witness in the prosecution case is to be Dr Raied Al-Wazzanm, above, of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who earlier this year praised Islamic State for being a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.
He said Mosul was “the most peaceful city in the world” adding that:
These people [IS] are less evil than the Iraqi government.
In his Police Service Northern Ireland witness statement, Dr Al-Wazzan denounced the pastor’s “terrible comments” which he found:
Offensive and disgusting.
But a coalition of moderate Muslim, Christian and atheist figures have joined together to support the evangelical preacher’s right to free speech.
In a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory, the NSS’s Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood said the case against the pastor was not in the public interest.
Given there seems to be no incitement to violence in McConnell’s comments, the PPS must be seen to have behaved in an authoritarian manner and, at a critical time, to have undermined freedom of speech in a period where it is already under very direct attack.
The prosecution must be viewed in a broader context where freedom of expression is being curtailed, particularly with regards to Islam and the criticism of religion.
We question whether your decision would have been taken were Islam not the subject of the ‘offending’ aspects of his sermon. If the word ‘atheism’ were substituted, we find it extremely improbable – even unimaginable – that the PPS would have pursued this reckless course of action.
Porteous Wood went on:
Criticism of ideas and ideologies must be considered as protected speech in the most fundamental sense, and James McConnell was exercising this right as he is, in our view, completely free to do.
McConnell has been 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.
The charge centres on a sermon he gave in May 2014 in which he said:
Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.
The sermon in the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle was streamed on the Internet.
Porteous Wood claimed the PPS’s decision to prosecute the pastor was “a serious misreading” of the Communications Act and:
A gross overstep of that legislation’s intent as framed by parliament. The prosecution in itself, irrespective of the trial’s outcome, has created a chilling effect already as evidenced by the view of the Evangelical Alliance and the response of churches.
The Reverend Brian Lacey, of St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Belfast, described the law in this area as a minefield and said he would not wish to place his sermons online. A successful conviction would be a significant and regressive moment.
Porteous Wood said the PPS must:
Fully consider human rights legislation and apply the principles contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. In light of this we urge you to reconsider your decision.
It is not in the public interest to pursue a case which is so palpably harmful to religious freedom and the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
A spokeswoman for the PPS confirmed it had received the National Secular Society’s letter and said it would be “responding in due course”.
This case is now before the court and it is for the judge to decide on all evidential matters. It would be inappropriate for the PPS to make any further comments at this point.
Last month, Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini of the Westminster Institute, a practising Muslim, spoke out against the decision to prosecute McConnell. He described it as “extraordinary” and:
Contrary to our country’s tradition of freedom of speech. I strongly uphold the moral right of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about matters of doctrine and belief.