Belfast pastor James McConnell says he will go to prison for free speech if necessary

Pastor James McConnell says he has no regrets about what he said.(Facebook/Christian Defence League)

An evangelical Christian pastor who described Islam as a "satanic" and "heathen" religion has said he will go to jail if that is necessary to defend free speech.

Hundreds of people turned out, sang hymns and cheered in support of James McConnell, aged 78, of Belfast in Northern Ireland, who is being prosecuted for remarks made in a sermon and streamed online from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.

McConnell, who had his first brief hearing on Thursday morning, said afterward: "Either they try me and put me in prison or I am free to preach the gospel."

His defence hopes the prosecution may eventually be thrown out. They are still awaiting disclosure of some key documents that are needed for the case to proceed, including a police officer's notebook.

McConnell, from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act. The two charges are improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.

Paul Dougan, a solicitor, said there was huge support for McConnell. "The case will be contested. We have been inundated with scores of potential witnesses who wish to give evidence on behalf of Pastor McConnell," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

District Judge George Conner granted a four-week adjournment to allow the Public Prosecution to review the case.

McConnell was not called into the dock but sat in the public gallery with his wife Margaret and many other family and supporters.

He said: "I believe, for the prosecution, this is a hot potato. They don't know how to handle it. They are miserable. I am looking forward to testifying if they give me a chance."

Some of the crowd outside brandished placards in support of McConnell and criticising sharia law.

McConnell said: "I will stand firm for the gospel. I will not relent one inch."

Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson was among those who defended McConnell's right to free speech. He also was forced to apologise to Muslims after his remarks when he said: "I wouldn't trust Muslims who are following sharia law to the letter and neither would he. However, as I have said in many of the normal daily activities of life, I would have no difficulty in trusting Muslims to go down to the shop for me."

The case was adjourned until October 1.