BELFAST (Christian Examiner) – An Irish pastor has said he will refuse to pay any fine a court levies on him for calling Islam "satanic" and, ironically, a Muslim imam is publicly defending him.
Pastor James McConnell was charged under the United Kingdom's 2003 Communications Act, which prohibits irreverent speech about other races, genders, sexual orientations or religions. McConnell referred to Islam as "satanic" and "heathen" in a sermon at his church last year.
If the sermon had been delivered within the confines of his church, there likely would be no charges, but McConnell's sermon was broadcast online through streaming video. Police pounced on the pastor for reportedly instigating dissension between Christianity and Islam, and he was later formally charged despite a public apology.
McConnell, who at the time was pastor of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, said he "unwittingly caused" offense. In the apology, he said he was drawing attention in his sermon "to how many followers of Islam have, regrettably, interpreted the doctrine of Islam as justification for violence."
"As a preacher of the word of God, it is this interpretation of the doctrine of Islam which I am condemning," McConnell said. "I abhor violence and condemn anyone, of any faith, who uses religion to justify it."
McConnell also said he believes in religious liberty and, for that reason, won't pay a fine if the court decides that is his punishment. That is also why Muhammad Al-Hussaini of London is supporting him.
Hussaini wrote in the Irish Times that, while he obviously does not agree with McConnell, he believes it is the "freedom of speech of Christians and Muslims to disagree and critique religious ideas that is on trial here – wherein lies the moral imperative to take a stand."
"The prince of classical Arab poets, Al-Mutanabbi, famously warns us, 'If you see the bared teeth of the beast, think not that the beast is smiling.' The monetized interfaith public relations industry has in certain cases become an arena of just such crocodile grins, where religious politicians ensure that speaking of prophetic hard truths about religious oppression is ever subordinate to the dictates of politically correct diplomacy," Hussaini wrote.
McConnell is also receiving support from Patrick McCafferty, a Roman Catholic priest in Northern Ireland and Nick Park, director of the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland.
McCafferty told The Catholic Herald he did not see "eye-to-eye" with the 78-year-old pastor on many issues, including Islam, but he said his prosecution was an "absolute outrage" and a waste of taxpayer funds.
McCafferty also said McConnell had said "far worse things" about Catholicism than he did about Islam in the past, but he did not feel a need to "go crying to the police about it."
"I went to hear him preach and I confronted him afterwards," McCafferty said. "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."
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McConnell, now retired from the pastorate but still active at his church, posted an update on his court appearance and asked for his church members and Christians around the world to support him in his stand for the truth.
"Remember, the Lord Jesus said in John 14:6, 'I am the Truth.' Your visible presence at the Laganside Courts on the 14, 15 and 16 of December will be greatly appreciated and will also be a witness, throughout the United Kingdom, that there are men and women who refuse to be 'gagged' in standing for the gospel!" McConnell wrote.
"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!"
Hussaini said the outcome of the trial could affect more than just the retired pastor's future. It may affect the whole of the United Kingdom and the world. If people cannot discuss religion without government interference, he said, chaos could follow.
"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," Husseini told The Guardian.
"Moreover, in a free and democratic society we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say."