An elderly evangelical Christian preacher admittedly suffering from cancer and diabetes would rather go to prison than withdraw a statement he made last year during a sermon in his north Belfast church where he called Islam "satanic."
In an interview, an obdurate Pastor James McConnell, who is facing a potential hate crime conviction, told the Belfast Telegraph that he is ready to serve his time in jail, unafraid to be locked up with "sex offenders, hoodlums, and paramilitaries."
"I am 78 years old and in ill health, but jail knows no fear for me. They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums, and paramilitaries and I will do my time," McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph in an exclusive interview.
"I have no regrets about what I said," the preacher added, still refusing to apologise for saying that he did not trust "heathen" Muslims.
McConnell made the statement after a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution (PPS) confirmed that the pastor refused an "offer of an informed warning" for an offence contrary to the Communications Act 2003.
"That offence was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive," the PPS spokesperson said, according to the Telegraph.
"The offer of an informed warning was refused by the defendant and accordingly the matter is now proceeding by way of a summary prosecution in the magistrates," the PPS representative added.
According to the Daily Mail, McConnell delivered a sermon at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May 2014, saying: "People say there are good Muslims in Britain—that may be so—but I don't trust them. Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."
McConnell's refusal to accept lesser offence, the Telegraph explained, prompted the PPS to call on the police to investigate the preacher for hate crime.
"I do not hate Muslims but I denounce Islam as a doctrine and I make no apologies for that. I will be pleading 'not guilty' when I stand in the dock in August," McConnell said.
"I am facing up to six months in jail and a hefty fine for saying what I believe," said McConnell, who admitted having cancer and diabetes, according to the Belfast Telegraph.
But McConnell's solicitor, Joe Rice, vowed to fight the preacher's case and turn it into a landmark trial.
"I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says, but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion," Rice said.
"If we're moving into a genuinely pluralist society, these freedoms must be extended to Christians as much as they are to others," he added.