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Islam in Ireland: the Great British Debate

Murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Daniel Kulinski/Flickr/Creative Commons

Murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Daniel Kulinski/Flickr/Creative Commons

In mid December of this year a court trial started in Britain. The leader of a Muslim community in Belfast Northern Ireland has registered a complaint against Rev McConnell, a Pentecostal minister who made negative comments about Islam in a sermon.

Outside of the courtroom, the issue has created a large public debate in Britain. It is not clear that the court trial will reach a conclusion, but the court of public opinion has already decided. The public debate has some interesting trends:

1. Rev McConnell has already won the publicity battle.

He might emerge as a victor with a verdict of innocent, or a martyr from a guilty verdict. In the court of public opinion, his supporters can claim both; he is persecuted by ungrateful and intolerant immigrants, and he is now a hero.

One unusual spin off is the benefit to Irish Republican nationalists. Belfast, in northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, and Irish nationalists want it in the Republic. Some will say, this would never happen in the Irish Republic, and the world press has less interest in smaller countries. Rev McConnell is strongly defended by a prominent Irish Catholic Priest Rev Patrick McCafferty, who wants the authorities to “abandon this farcical prosecution.” This is like all Irish people closing ranks to defend one of their own.

2. Rev McConnell has already won the cultural battle.

Modern PC culture has a strong aversion to aggressive public debate, and Rev McConnell says what he thinks. Ministers have strong opinions in Irish Protestant culture; not long ago Protestant and Catholics were shooting at each other in Belfast. Immigrants from other places may be offended when they are criticized, but they must adjust to the traditions in the place where they choose to live.

One strong defender of of Rev McConnell is Muhammad al-Hussaini, a prominent Islamic scholar in Britain. Mr Hussaini says we should all “defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs.”

3. Rev McConnell has already won the religious debate.

His one sermon about Islam would have been forgotten, except that a group of Muslims pressed for criminal charges. Now stories about severe persecution of Christians in Muslim communities will also be remembered. A Sunday sermon in one church in Belfast pales in comparison.

A few years ago I overheard a conversation in a college where I worked. Many students were refugees who were learning English and two of them had a loud conversation near me, in English, which was their common language. The subject was conservative Islam, and the things they said about Christians were very offensive. I was shocked by their extreme opinions about people like me. If we permit one side to debate at a low level, all sides can do the same. No one is privileged.

4. Rev McConnell is now an evangelist to Muslims.

The famous sermon is now a video on the Internet, along with many others. Muslims may be offended, but they are also curious, and they don’t want to criticize what they don’t know. As a result, thousands of devout Muslims will listen to sermons from a Pentecostal minister. He will tell them about Jesus in his usual direct way, and they will listen carefully.

The Christian cause is advanced in some strange ways. The Apostle Paul was very active while chained in prison, waiting for his execution “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18)

We know the rest of the story, two thousand years later.

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