Trial of preacher accused of making offensive remarks about Islam begins in Belfast

Pastor James McConnell, 78, arrives at Belfast Magistrates' Court Credit: Niall Carson / PA

The trial of an evangelical preacher accused of making offensive comments about Islam has begun in Northern Ireland.

Pastor James McConnell, 78, has been charged in connection with a controversial speech made from the pulpit of his north Belfast church last year, in which he called Islam "satanic".

He is facing two charges at Belfast Magistrates' Court - improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network - after remarks made at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle were streamed online.

He denies both charges.

During the first day of his trial, District Judge Liam McNally was told that McConnell had devoted 60 years to helping "needy" people including those struggling with marital breakdown or battling drug and alcohol addictions.

Defence barrister Philip Mateer QC said: "In all other circumstances the pastor might be considered a credit to the community."

McConnell has received backing from Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson.

The court was shown a DVD of the entire service from May 2014 in which McConnell made the comments.

During the sermon, which was played in full, McConnell told the congregation he may be misunderstood but was trying to highlight the plight of a Sudanese woman who had been sentenced to death.

He said: "Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."

In his opening speech, the lawyer for the prosecution David Russell said the decision to proceed with the prosecution had been "proportionate and necessary."

The lawyer said: "He characterises the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way. And that's grossly offensive and that's not protected from saying it from a pulpit.

"It has nothing to do with religion or freedom of expression of his freedom to preach."

"He is unrepentant," he added.

Three days have been set aside for the trial. The case continues.