An ailing 78-year-old British pastor who has been charged in court for calling Islam "satanic" and "heathen" has vowed to defend his action and his Christian faith with all his might during his trial set for Dec. 14-16 in a Belfast court.
Pastor James McConnell was charged with sharing a "grossly offensive" message at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.
"I am not running away, definitely not. I am going to take my stand for the Lord," he told BBC as reported by Charisma News.
McConnell told reporters that as far as he is concerned what is on trial is not him for the "Muslim issue" but rather "freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of worship and the freedom of preaching the gospel and saying what is in your heart."
Writing on his blog, the pastor urged Christians and even Muslims to join him in his protest against the charges raised against him.
"I also appeal and challenge every Muslim who lives in this country," McConnell wrote. "No one is questioning your right to worship here and practice your religion. If I was living in many Muslim countries in the world, I would be forbidden to practice my religion and would probably be imprisoned or even put to death for doing so. Yet you, as a Muslim, have perfect liberty here. So I appeal to you, come with me and protest."
He also wrote a stirring message for Irish Christians. "Once again I appeal to every child of God and every minister of God. If I am put in prison then, in a sense, you are also put in prison with me; for every sermon you preach and record will be examined and scrutinised!" he wrote.
McConnell he is prepared to go to jail to protect his freedoms even as he justified his comments by clarifying the context in which they were spoken.
"I have qualified my comments by those who use their religion as justification for violence. As a preacher of God, it is this interpretation of the doctrine of Islam which I am condemning," he said.
McConnell has surprisingly and ironically received the support of prominent atheists in the country. In a number of articles, Irish journalist and editor Suzanne Breen has come to McConnell's defence, saying he represents freedom of speech.
"As an atheist, I carry no candle for Christian fundamentalists, but there is something seriously wrong in hauling a pensioner pastor in ill health through the courts for simply expressing his opinion," Breen wrote.
"Let's get this straight. James McConnell didn't incite hatred or encourage violence against any Muslim. Had he done so, I'd be first in the queue to denounce him. He simply expressed his views about another religion. Freedom of speech should mean that he has every right to lambast Islam, as Islamic clerics have to lambast him and Christianity if they so choose."
Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly member Nelson McCausland also defended McConnell even as he compared the language used by the pastor to what Jesus Christ said in the Bible.
"Even more important and significant is the fact that Jesus Christ Himself used such language during his Earthly ministry. He denounced false teachers and false teaching in what many today would regard as very strong language and, in John 8:44, 45, he said to some of his hearers: 'Ye are of your father the devil.' Yet He loved those to whom He referred and He loved them so much that He died for them," wrote McCausland in an op-ed for The Belfast Telegraph.
Northern Ireland Director of the Evangelical Alliance Peter Lynas was likewise alarmed by the charges brought against McConnell.
"I don't agree with all that Pastor McConnell said, but I am deeply concerned about this prosecution for allegedly sending a message that is grossly offensive," he said. "Many churches will be wary of what they place on the Internet until this case is heard and the law is clarified. This prosecution seems to stretch the Communications Act well beyond what parliament intended."