A retired pastor has been found not guilty of making "grossly offensive remarks" about Islam during a sermon in Northern Ireland.

Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, had described Islam as "satanic", "heathen" and "a doctrine spawned in hell".

He was charged under the Communications Act (2003) because the sermon, which he preached in May 2014, 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.

During a three-day trial last month, Pastor McConnell told Belfast Magistrates Court he still believed what he had preached and did not go into church to "provoke anyone".

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.

"He intended to use those words. It wasn't a slip of the tongue," said David Russell QC.

But a defence barrister argued Pastor McConnell was a man with an unblemished record who should be recognised for his good work in society, not convicted in court.

Delivering his verdict, District Judge Liam McNally 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."

The Public Prosecution Service said in a statement: "It is clear from the judgement that the court considered Pastor McConnell had a case to answer and that the decision on whether the comment was offensive or grossly offensive was not only finely balanced but one for the court and the court alone to take."

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.

Commenting on the acquittal of Pastor McConnell, Peter Lynas, national director of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, said: "Today's verdict is a victory for common sense and freedom of speech.

"However, until the law is changed or clear guidance is issued there will still be concern about further prosecution. The Public Prosecution Service need to explain why this case was brought and assure everyone that this will not happen again.

"This case contains challenges to both the State and the Church. It is vital that the State does not stray into the censorship of Church sermons or unwittingly create a right not to be offended. Meanwhile, the Church must steward its freedom of speech responsibly so as to present Jesus in a gracious and appealing way to everyone."

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