The story may sound familiar. A white-haired fire-and-brimstone pastor punches the air from his pulpit, addressing his congregation with a porridge-thick Ulster accent and delivers incendiary and unequivocal judgments about a religion that is not his own. You might think we’re talking about religious leader and Northern Irish politician Ian Paisley, having a go at the Catholics again as he’s been well known for doing over the past 50 years. But the man in question is in fact Pastor James McConnell of Belfast’s Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church, a last-days ‘Christ-centred’ Evangelical church. Last week, McConnell sparked a furore across the Six Counties due to a sermon address he gave on Islam.
‘Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell’, were the words that caused upset, along with the bizarre comparison he made between British Muslims and the IRA, acting in cells across the UK. At this point, Paisley could probably sue McConnell for plagiarism. But while Paisley never faced censure for his anti-Catholic remarks, McConnell is now being subjected to a police investigation.
Since economic immigrants came to Northern Ireland after the relative peace and prosperity brought by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has had legitimate problems with race-related attacks. Some feel such attacks are a symptom of comments like McConnell’s. A spokesman for Belfast’s Islamic centre told McConnell that he was ‘responsible for any racial attacks on any Muslim in Northern Ireland’.
While the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church has stated there is ‘no justification for such an attack on any individual or their home whatever their religion’, McConnell says he stands by his views. Just as Ian Paisley has said in recent years that the conditions Northern Irish Catholics had to endure in the Sixties were wrong, he stands by his views on Catholicism itself.
The important thing to remember here is this: both men are propagators of strongly held religious beliefs. It goes without saying that they think that every other religion is wrong. If a country is to have personal and religious liberty, a pastor must be free to criticise, and condemn to hellfire, any religion he sees fit, just as anyone is free not to attend his Sunday sermon.