Antrim preacher's offensive remarks about Islam not criminal

Pastor's defence stated that he did not set out to provoke anyone

An evangelical protestant preacher from County Antrim has been cleared of making grossly offensive remarks about Islam.

Pastor James McConnell from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, faced two charges after saying the religion was "heathen", "satanic" and a "doctrine spawned in hell" in a sermon streamed online in May 2014.

There was a reserved judgement following a three day trial at Belfast Magistrates' Court last month.

The 78-year-old ended up being charged under the Communications Act because his sermon was streamed online.

In a landmark case, he denied charges of making improper use of a public electronics communications network and of causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.

He said: "I was attacking the theology of Islam. I was not attacking any individual Muslim."

Summing up their case, the prosecution said Pastor McConnell, of Shore Road, Newtownabbey, was "not on trial for his beliefs" but for what he said.

District Judge Liam McNally conceded that the remarks could be seen as offensive, they did not reach the legal bar in terms of being 'grossly offensive'. 

Delivering his verdict, District Judge Liam McNally the judge said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances."

Pastor McConnell received support from two unlikely sources: one from an Imam and one from one of Northern

Ireland’s best known atheists.

Dr Al-Hussaini, a Muslim cleric from London, said he did not agree with what the pastor said but defended his right to say it.

Boyd Sleator, chairman of Atheist NI, said that although the pastor's words lacked "sense or reasoning", society at large should not criminalise things simply because some people find them offensive.