BELFAST (Christian Examiner) -- A Northern Ireland evangelical preacher is facing potentially six months in jail simply for labeling Islam "Satanic" in an online sermon, and the case could have a chilling effect on religious freedom across Europe.
Pastor James McConnell delivered the sermon in May 2014 at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, and is being prosecuted by the government under the 2003 Communications Act, which prohibits the sending "by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive."
The trial is scheduled to begin in August.
"Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell," McConnell said in the sermon, having been inspired to preach it after a Sudanese pregnant woman, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, was sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity.
She claimed she was never Muslim and eventually was released.
The streaming of the sermon led to the prosecution.
McConnell, 78, has since retired from the church and says he has received more than 20,000 messages in support. He plans to plead not guilty.
The Gospel, he told the Belfast Telegraph, is under attack.
"It is a case of back to the future. In the first century, the apostles were jailed for preaching the Gospel," he said. "Early Christians were boiled in oil, burnt at the stake and devoured by wild beasts. If they faced that and kept their faith, I can easily do six months in jail."
A Muslim leader who once praised the terrorist group ISIS is the prosecution's lead witness, the newspaper reported. In January Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre told a radio program that ISIS had turned his hometown of Mosil into "the most peaceful city in the world."
"Yes, there are other things going wrong there... they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear," Al-Wazzan said of the group that has beheaded Christians and others.
He later apologized for his remarks. Al-Wazzan called McConnell's sermon "offensive and disgusting."
All total, the prosecution plans to call eight witnesses.
McConnell's attorney, Joe Rice, vowed to fight the prosecution "tooth and nail" and to turn the case into a landmark trial for religious freedom.
"It is extremely disappointing that at a time when the PPS [police] currently has so much on its plate and when resources are so scarce, public money is being used to pursue a man who has given 60 years of his life to the service of God," Rice told the newspaper. "I urge the PPS to withdraw these charges. I don't see how targeting an elderly gentleman is in the public interest."
Rice added, "I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If we're moving into a genuinely pluralist society, these freedoms must be extended to Christians as much as they are to others."
McConnell said he has no regrets.
"My church funds medical care for 1,200 Muslim children in Kenya and Ethiopia," he told the Telegraph. "I've no hatred in my heart for Muslims but I won't be stopped from preaching against Islam."
Pastors and Christians leaders in the region are watching the case closely, concerned about their future to preach the Gospel. Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, told the Telegraph, "I am deeply concerned about this prosecution for allegedly sending a message that is grossly offensive. Many churches will be wary of what they place on the Internet until this case is heard and the law is clarified. This prosecution seems to stretch the Communications Act well beyond what parliament intended."
In fact, the law already has had an effect on religious liberty.
Rev. Brian Lacey of St Peter's Church of Ireland said he chose not to place his sermons online, out of fear they would be "misinterpreted and misunderstood."
"It's a whole minefield and to me it's best that the people I'm preaching to are the people there in front of me, not people outside the doors and for that reason I wouldn't do it."
Said Lynas, "If this prosecution succeeds, it will cause massive ripples."
Free Presbyterian minister David McIlveen agreed.
"No church should be under any obligation or pressure to restrain or restrict the message that is coming from the pulpit and has come from that pulpit over many years," he McIlveen the Telegraph. "Whether we are from the Christian, Muslim or Jewish identity, I think all are subject to scrutiny and examination.
"If we cannot do that without fear of persecution or prosecution then I think we have really gone beyond the pale of civil and religious liberty. We are seeing this more of an attack upon the Christian faith."
For more information on the pastor, visit JamesMcconnell.org.