The criminal trial of a Christian couple charged with a public order offence for criticising Islam begins today.
Watch a video report from the prayer rally
Last night hundreds of Christians gathered to pray about the case, concerned about its implications for free speech and religious liberty. A protest is expected to take place outside the court today.
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang of Aintree in Liverpool are being prosecuted for a “religiously aggravated” public order offence. The trial, which is scheduled to last for two days, is being heard at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court.
Police arrested the couple, who run the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool, after a female Muslim hotel guest complained that she was offended by comments made on 20 March.
According to newspaper reports, the debate involved discussion of whether Jesus was the Son of God or just a minor prophet of Islam.
Newspapers also report that the debate included comments that Mohammed was a warlord and Muslim dress for women was a form of bondage.
However, the facts of the case are disputed.
A major client of the couple’s hotel has ceased referring guests because of the allegations. This has led to a 80 per cent drop in the hotel’s income, leaving the couple in financial difficulty.
The Christian Institute is funding the Vogelenzangs’ legal defence. Its spokesman, Mike Judge, said: “We believe there are significant free speech and religious liberty issues at stake.”
The couple’s lawyer, David Whiting, said in September: “Ben and Sharon do not accept they were threatening, abusive or insulting.
“They are committed Christians and it is the defence’s contention that they have every right to defend their religious beliefs and explain those beliefs to others who do not hold similar views.”
The couple were arrested and charged in July under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 31(1)(c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.