Secularists have spoken out against the prosecution of a Northern Irish preacher who criticised Islam.
The National Secular Society (NSS) says taking the case against James McConnell is “palpably harmful to religious freedom and the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.
The preacher, who led Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle until last year, has also received support from an Islamic scholar who expressed ‘deep dismay’ over the prosecution.
McConnell is being prosecuted for comments made in a sermon, which was available online, in which he said: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”.
Following the controversy, he told a Northern Irish newspaper: “I’ve no hatred in my heart for Muslims but I won’t be stopped from preaching against Islam.”
The 78-year-old is being prosecuted under the Communications Act 2003 for “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive”.
He says he faces a six month jail sentence but will plead not guilty when he appears in court next month. “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”, he has commented.
Last week it emerged that the chief witness against the preacher will be Dr Raied Al-Wazzan.
Earlier this year Dr Al-Wazzan told the BBC that the city of Mosul in Iraq, controlled by the so-called Islamic State, is “the most peaceful city in the world”.
He later withdrew his comments – which he made on the BBC’s Talkback Ulster radio programme – and apologised.
In a letter to Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) criticising the decision to take McConnell to court, the National Secular Society said free speech was being damaged.
“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.”
It added: “We question whether your decision would have been taken were Islam not the subject of the ‘offending’ aspects of his sermon.”
The letter stated: “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.”
The PPS responded: “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.”
Muslim scholar Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini has also spoken out against the prosecution of the Christian preacher.
He has said that: “Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere”, it is crucially important that people can “discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs”.
Dr Al-Hussaini added that if McConnell was convicted and sent to jail, “I shall go to prison with him”.