A leading Northern Ireland Muslim who praised Islamic State is set to be called as the main prosecution witness against a Christian preacher charged with making offensive remarks about Islam.
In legal documents seen exclusively by the Belfast Telegraph, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre is named as the chief witness in the prosecution case against Pastor James McConnell.
The evangelical preacher faces up to six months in prison if convicted over a sermon last year in which he branded Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic”.
In his statement to the PSNI, Dr Al-Wazzan denounces the pastor’s “terrible comments” and describes his “general sweeping statements” as “offensive and disgusting”.
In January Dr Al-Wazzan himself was embroiled in controversy when he said that Islamic State, which has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.
“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback.
“Yes, there are other things going wrong there… they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear.”
His comments provoked public outrage and Dr Al-Wazzan later withdrew them and apologised.
In his statement to the PSNI about Pastor McConnell, Dr Al-Wazzan claims that many Muslims in Northern Ireland are professionals while the pastor’s congregation “may include impressionable, uneducated people”.
Last night Pastor McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph: “The PPS’s case against me is summed up by the fact that the chief witness the prosecution is calling is a man who made highly controversial comments about Isis (Islamic State in Syria and the Levant).
“A man who praised the rule in Iraq of Isis murderers will be giving evidence against me – it’s like a pantomime.
“I don’t know how he will have the nerve to stand in a court and testify against me, and I don’t know how the PPS has the nerve to think he is in a position morally to do that.”
Pastor McConnell’s solicitor Joe Rice said: “There are many bizarre features to this prosecution. We have now served our voluntary defence statement upon the court and the PPS.
“We expect the PPS to release additional and new information which may lead us to lodge an abuse of process application in the near future.”
A Public Prosecution Service spokesman said: “This case is now before the court and it is for the judge to decide on all evidential matters. It would be inappropriate for the PPS to make any further comment at this point.”
Pastor McConnell has been charged under the 2003 Communications Act with “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive”.
The charges centre on a sermon he gave in May 2014 in which he said “Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.” The sermon in the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle was streamed on the internet.
In his statement to the PSNI four days after Pastor McConnell’s sermon, Dr Al-Wazzan reveals he hadn’t actually heard the sermon but became aware of it two days later when the Belfast Telegraph telephoned the Belfast Islamic Centre asking for comment about the preacher’s remarks.
Dr Al-Wazzan, an executive committee member of the centre, said he was “very offended” about what the evangelical preacher had said.
He told police: “It makes me angry that this man is making general sweeping statements of this type, branding all Muslims like this. A lot of the Muslim community in Belfast are professionals such as doctors and to hear this man speak like this is disgraceful and disgusting.
“My concerns are then worsened by the fact this man is in a position of power, preaching to a large congregation which may include impressionable, uneducated people who may then start to listen and believe what this man is saying rather than form their own beliefs.” In his five-page statement, Dr Al-Wazzan said he had been contacted by many Muslims worried about their safety following Pastor McConnell’s sermon.
“I now have concerns for the Muslim community and feel that any attacks that may happen in the forthcoming weeks are a direct result of what this man said on Sunday,” he added.
When Pastor McConnell was questioned by police about his sermon in June last year, Dr Al-Wazzan’s complaint was the only one the PSNI had received. A week later three more Muslims contacted the police to make brief statements of complaint.
They included two men from Pakistan whose north Belfast home was attacked a fortnight after the preacher’s controversial comments. Following the attack, Pastor McConnell visited the house, condemned what happened, and gave Muhammad Asif Khattak and Haroon Khan £100 to replace their broken window.
The Christian preacher is due to appear in court next month but the case is not likely to be heard until December.
Mr Rice has said it will be a landmark trial with leading political, religious, and academic figures giving evidence in defence of freedom of speech and religion.
Pastor McConnell last night said he was sorry if he had offended Muslims but he was still willing to go to jail rather than withdraw his remarks.
“Everybody has the right to free speech,” he said. “When Dr Al-Wazzan found himself in trouble for his Isis comments earlier this year, I publicly said that he had let himself go but I stressed that he shouldn’t be reported to the police.
“As strongly as I disagree with what he said, I support his right to say it. But, it seems, the same right is not extended to me.”
May 2014: Pastor McConnell delivers a firebrand sermon railing against Islam and all its works, describing it as “heathen”, “Satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell”. “People say there are good Muslims in Britain — that may be so — but I don’t trust them” he says in a video of his sermon streamed over the internet.
May 21, 2014: Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, of the Belfast Islamic Centre, complains to police about Pastor McConnell’s sermon and claims Pastor McConnell would be responsible for any attacks on Muslims in Northern Ireland. Police launch an investigation into what they describe as a potential hate crime.
May 28, 2014: Remarks by First Minister Peter Robinson supporting Pastor McConnell spark outrage. Mr Robinson tells the Irish News that while he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to Sharia law, he would trust them “to go to the shops” for him. Mr Robinson said that it was a duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as “false prophesy”.
June 4 2014: Mr Robinson goes into reverse gear. The DUP leader apologises to Muslims for any offence caused by his remarks in support of Pastor McConnell, adding that his remarks were misinterpreted.
June 6, 2014: Pastor McConnell apologises for any offence caused by his controversial sermon, but refuses to retract it. One of his assistant pastors resigns.
September 1, 2014: Pastor McConnell announces his retirement.
June 18, 2015: News breaks that Pastor McConnell is to be prosecuted under the Communications Act 2003 for sending a “grossly offensive” communication over the internet. The Public Prosecution Service said that because Pastor McConnell had refused to accept an informed warning he would be taken to court.
June 24, 2015: Islamic scholar Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini defends Pastor McConnell’s right to free speech. “I strongly uphold the moral right of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about matters of doctrine and belief. I express my deep dismay that my fellow citizen is being subjected to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he has made incited physical harm against anyone.”
July 8: Dr Al-Wazzan is named as a prosecution witness against Pastor McConnell.