James McConnell, a 78-year-old Christian pastor in Northern Ireland, was charged in 2015 with making "grossly offensive remarks" about Islam during a sermon. Pictured: Pastor McConnell leaves Belfast Magistrates' Court on December 16, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The unlawful arrest of a Christian street preacher in London has drawn attention to the continuing use of hate speech laws to silence Christians in multicultural Britain — even as incendiary speech by Muslim extremists is routinely ignored.
On February 23, Oluwole Ilesanmi, a 64-year-old Nigerian evangelist known as Preacher Olu, was arrested at Southgate Station in North London after complaints that his message about Jesus was "Islamophobic." A video of the arrest, viewed more than two million times, shows how two police officers ordered the man to stop preaching because "nobody wants to listen to that," confiscated his Bible and then arrested him for "a breach of peace."
The video was filmed by Ambrosine Shitrit, co-founder of Eye on Antisemitism, a London-based organization that tracks anti-Semitism on social media. Shortly before Ilesanmi's arrest, Shitrit had seen him interacting with another man, who turned out to be a Muslim. She thought the Muslim was about to assault Ilesanmi when she went over and started filming with her phone. When the police arrived in response to an emergency call, the Muslim man left the scene.
The video shows Ilesanmi pleading with police, "Don't take my Bible away. Don't take my Bible away." An officer responded: "You should have thought about that before being racist." A popular blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer tweeted what many people doubtless felt: "Dear @metpoliceuk, Setting aside the appalling ignorance of these two officers, would you handle a copy of the Qur'an like that?"
Ilesanmi said that after he was searched, the police drove him to a remote area before "de-arresting him." In Britain, "de-arrest" is a legal term which means that no crime has been committed. Since then, London police have changed their story about what transpired; some have accused the police of staging a cover-up.
When journalist Marcus Jones of Premier Christian Radio asked the Met Police whether they agreed that Ilesanmi had been driven away to a remote location, the Met Police expressly denied it. In an email exchange, they said that Ilesanmi was escorted "approximately 200 meters away, de-arrested and shown to a nearby bus stop."
Upon further questioning by Jones, Met Police said that Ilesanmi "was driven approximately 3.5 miles to Hadley Wood in north London, where he was left at a bus stop." The police also said that the man was arrested "in order to prevent [emphasis added] a breach of the peace." The police also said, "Yes, officers checked that he had a bank card."
Jones emailed a follow-up question:
"Mr. Ilesanmi says he was taken 5.2 miles away and dropped at the edge of Wrotham Park outside of the London transport zone. He also insists that he had no money on him when he was left by the police. I just want to be sure on the exact distance: is the 3.5-mile figure an exact distance or an estimate? Thanks."
The Met Police responded:
"The man was driven approximately 3.5 miles to Hadley Wood in north London, where he was left at a bus stop. As stated below, the man was left at a bus stop with a bank card."
The British watchdog group Christian Concern wrote:
"Oluwole was not taken to Hadley Wood. He was taken to Wrotham Park which is some distance away from Hadley Wood and is outside the London transport zone. He had an Oyster card [a rechargeable plastic card valid for all of London's public transport] with him which was not accepted on the bus. He is clear that he did not have a bank card on him when the police searched him. Bank cards are in any case not accepted on the 84 Metro Line bus which he eventually caught. Furthermore, there are no ATMs anywhere near the place where the police left him.
"Oluwole had to work out where he was with his smart phone and then catch a bus back to High Barnet. When a bus came, he was told that his Oyster card was not accepted on this bus. He explained that he had been dropped there by the police and asked how he was going to get back. The driver asked him to leave the bus. He said that a passenger would help him, whereupon a passenger did volunteer to pay his £2 bus fare in cash. He still has the ticket which validates his account of what happened."
Christian Concern launched a petition asking Home Secretary Sajid Javid to do more to ensure that the police are trained to act within the law:
"A video of street preacher Oluwole Ilesanmi being arrested outside Southgate Underground station has been seen by millions of people worldwide. It's not the first time a Christian street preacher has been wrongly arrested in the UK.
"Christian street preachers should be free to share the gospel, even where it means challenging the beliefs of others.
"The law rightly protects freedom of speech, even if it offends, shocks or disturbs others. But too often, police officers have shown themselves either to be ignorant of this freedom or unwilling to uphold it. This leads to a chilling effect, where people are increasingly unwilling to say what they believe, for fear of arrest."
Christian Concern CEO Andrea Williams added:
"Despite laws that theoretically support the freedom to preach in public, in practice, police officers are quick to silence preachers after any suggestion (often false) of Islamophobia or homophobia. This is not only unjust but kills free speech through self-censorship. We want to see police officers protect the freedom of street preachers by only using their powers when truly necessary."
In recent years, dozens of Christians — clergy and non-clergy — in Britain have been arrested or fired from their jobs due to their faith. Much of the harassment is based on three sections of two British laws that are vague and open to subjective interpretations:
Section 4A (Intentional Harassment, Alarm or Distress) of the Public Order Act 1986: "A person is guilty of an offense if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he — (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior, or disorderly behavior, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress."
Section 5 (Harassment, Alarm or Distress) of the Public Order Act 1986: "A person is guilty of an offense if he — (a) uses threatening or abusive words or behavior, or disorderly behavior, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."
Section 31 (Racially or Religiously Aggravated Public Order Offenses) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998: "A person is guilty of an offense under this section if he commits — (a) an offense under section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (fear or provocation of violence); (b) an offense under section 4A of that Act (intentional harassment, alarm or distress); or (c) an offense under section 5 of that Act (harassment, alarm or distress), which is racially or religiously aggravated for the purposes of this section."
Many of those accused of breaking the law had challenged the doctrinal claims of Islam or had made public proclamations of Christian sexual ethics. A free speech clause, tabled by Lord Waddington as section 29JA in the Public Order Act 1986, assures that public criticism of homosexuality or same-sex marriage is lawful. The amendment to section 29J (Protection of Freedom of Expression (Sexual Orientation)) states:
"(1) In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred."
"(2) In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred."
Nevertheless, police often use heavy-handed tactics to remove lawful Christian preachers off the streets. Muslim street preachers, by contrast, often are treated more leniently. A video illustrates the double standards being applied by British police with regards to street preaching by Christians and Muslims.
In one instance, a Muslim judge convicted a Christian preacher of a public order offense due to his choice of Bible verses. District Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi, who also serves with the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, the overseer of Britain's Shariah courts, ruled that Michael Overd, a former British paratrooper who is now a Christian street preacher, should not have quoted a passage from Leviticus Chapter 20, which calls for the death penalty for Israelites who engage in sodomy. Qureshi said that Overd should instead have used Leviticus 18:22, which merely describes homosexual practice as an "abomination." Overd later noted: "I am amazed that the judge sees it as his role to dictate which parts of the Bible can and can't be preached."
"Religious believers are, once again, facing increased pressure to restrict their faith to the 'private sphere.' We now see regular, and increasingly unapologetic, persecution of Christians who remain committed to biblical teaching, refusing to bow to liberal, secular orthodoxies."
Following is the first of a three-part series which examines the persecution of Christians in Britain. Part 1 documents efforts to remove street preachers from the public square. Part 2 examines the persecution in Britain of ordinary Christians in the workplace. Part 3 documents hostility to Christianity in the British culture.
Gatestone Institute has documented more than two dozen cases in which street preachers have been unlawfully arrested, jailed and or harassed by British police, prosecutors and the judiciary:
July 2018. London. Alan Coote, a 55-year-old Christian street preacher, was arrested outside St. Paul's Cathedral for "breaching the peace" after reading aloud from the Bible. Coote had been arguing for what he said is his legal right to preach outside the cathedral.
Martin Parsons of the Barnabas Fund, a Christian charity, said:
"This illustrates the slippery slope down which the UK is losing its heritage of religious freedom. One of the first aspects of freedom of religion to be established in England was the freedom to read the Bible in public. St Paul's is trying to stop someone reading the Sermon on the Mount in public."
St Paul's Cathedral staff eventually relented, but only to the extent that they offered to allow Coote to preach on the site for half an hour each week.
The Telegraph noted that the cathedral staff's treatment of Coote is very different to when, in 2011, St Paul's Cathedral hosted anti-capitalism protesters as they set up camp outside the church for over three months. At the time, the cathedral's Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser, gave the demonstrators a warm welcome and affirmed their right to protest. He asked police to move off the steps of the cathedral.
March 2018. Barking, London. David Lynn, a Christian pastor from Canada, was arrested outside Barking underground station after a female passer-by told officers that he made homophobic comments. He was later released without charge after police admitted they were wrong to detain him.
December 2017. Camberley, Surrey. David Barker and Stephen Wan, two Christian street preachers from Reading, were charged with hate speech after hecklers told police that they had made homophobic comments. On January 15, 2018, the two men were cleared of all charges after police determined that they had not said the things they were accused of saying.
July 2017. Nottingham. Andrew Frost, a Christian street preacher, was arrested in the city center after allegedly entering into a discussion with two passers-by about homosexuality. The two men claimed that Frost had verbally abused them and directed several lewd comments at them, all of which he denied. Frost was charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Nottingham Magistrates' Court proclaimed Frost not guilty and ordered the repayment of his legal fees.
June 2017. Lincoln, Lincolnshire. Daniel Courney, an American missionary, was arrested in the High Street quarter after a Muslim passer-by told police that he had made Islamophobic comments. He was charged under Section 5 Public Order Act 1986. On September 14, 2017, the Lincoln Magistrates' Court convicted Courney of using "threatening and discriminatory language."
During Courney's appeal at Lincoln Crown Court, his attorneys argued that the law provides the freedom for him to preach the Christian message, a freedom which has been upheld in the courts for many years. Courney also denied making the Islamophobic comments attributed to him. On December 8, 2017, the Crown Court overturned the Magistrates' Court's sentence.
June 2017. Southwark, London. Ian Sleeper, a Christian street preacher, was arrested outside Southwark Cathedral, after displaying a placard which read, "Love Muslims Hate Islam Time For The Truth." He was subsequently released on bail after the Crown Prosecution Service could not decide whether to charge him. After having been on bail for six weeks, the police decided to take no further action against him. Sleeper, who owns a restaurant in Ashford and employs Muslims, said:
"Society needs to kick political correctness into the long grass and be unafraid to criticize Islam. It was political correctness and an abuse of my rights under the law that got me detained in a police cell for 13 hours.
"I differentiate between Muslims the people and Islam the ideology. I love my Muslim neighbor as the Bible commands, and I am friends with all my Muslim staff. But I hate the religion's ideology. It is not Muslims we should be attacking, it's Islam. Islam makes Muslims victims with a tight grip that holds them captive to an evil ideology.
"The majority of people we engage with on the street agree with us. This includes ex-Muslims as well as Muslims. Many Muslims fear that they are unable to speak up against and leave Islam, but I have had the privilege of meeting ex-Muslims on the street and am often joined by them in my protest."
March 2017. Bristol. Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, two Christian street preachers, were convicted at Bristol Magistrates' Court of disorderly conduct and using "threatening and abusive words...likely to cause alarm." In July 2016, Overd and Stockwell were arrested for preaching at Bristol's Broadmead Shopping Center. Several hecklers who appeared to be supportive of Islam became loud and aggressive, with some swearing and hurling abuse. There was debate on several points, especially over the differences between Islam and Christianity. At the time Overd and Stockwell were arrested, a police officer chided one of the men, saying, "People were getting angry. You were challenging homophobia [sic]. You were challenging Muslims." The officer accused them of "anti-social behavior." Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Center filed an appeal:
"The Bible and its teachings are the foundation of our society and provided many of the freedoms and protections that we still enjoy today. So it is extraordinary that the prosecution, speaking on behalf of the state, could say that the Bible contains abusive words which, when spoken in public, constitute a criminal offense."
During the trial, Crown Prosecutor Ian Jackson argued that biblical claims about the unique, salvific role and divine nature of Jesus Christ were offensive. As a result, Jackson argued, quoting parts of the Bible in public should be considered criminal offenses under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
At an appeal hearing at Bristol Crown Court in June 2017, Michael Phillips, an attorney for Overd and Stockwell, emphasized the importance of freedom of speech, even in cases where the speaker does not necessarily hold the views being expressed. Another attorney, Paul Diamond, argued that there is no right not to be exposed to contrary ideas, adding that should passers-by not wish to hear the preaching, they are able to walk away. Bristol Crown Court agreed and acquitted Overd and Stockwell of all charges.
July 2016. Irvine, Scotland. Gordon Larmour, a Scottish evangelist, was arrested after he answered questions from a gay teenager about the Christian view on homosexual practice. Larmour, who often visits Irvine to offer Christian leaflets to passers-by, referred to the Book of Genesis and stated that God created Adam and Eve to produce children. Larmour's answers angered the young man, who called police and told them that Larmour had made "homophobic" remarks. Larmour was arrested and charged with behaving in a "threatening and abusive manner aggravated by prejudice relating to sexual orientation" and "assault." In January 2017, Kilmarnock Sheriff Court found Larmour "not guilty" after Sheriff Alistair Watson established that the evidence against him was unconvincing. Larmour told the Scottish Mail on Sunday:
"The police didn't listen to me. They took the young homosexual guy's side straight away and read me my rights.
"I feel they try so hard to appear like they are protecting minorities, they go too far the other way. I want to be able to tell people the good word of the gospel and think I should be free to do so. I wasn't speaking my opinions — I was quoting from the Bible.
"I think the police should have handled it differently and listened to what I had to say. They should have calmed the boy down and left it at that.
"In court the boy's friend told the truth — that I hadn't assaulted him or called him homophobic names. I had simply answered his question and told him about Adam and Eve and Heaven and Hell. Preaching from the Bible is not a crime."
December 2015. Beverley, Yorkshire. Michael Jones, a 66-year-old Christian street preacher, was arrested for Islamophobia. He was accused of shouting "Muslims are terrorists, they should not be allowed in this country," "Islam is not a religion, Islam is terrorism" and "Islam does not preach the Bible, it's not religion, it's terrorism." A recording of his sermon revealed that he had not said the words he was accused of saying. In February 2016, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges against Jones.
August 2015. Belfast. James McConnell, a 78-year-old Christian pastor in Northern Ireland, appeared at Laganside Magistrates' Court in Belfast, after local Muslims complained that he delivered a sermon in which he described Islam as "heathen" and "satanic." According to Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service (PPS), McConnell — whose sermon was streamed live on the internet — violated the 2003 Communications Act by "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive." In January 2016, McConnell was acquitted after Belfast Magistrates' Court Judge Liam McNally ruled that his comments did not reach the "high threshold" of being "grossly offensive." McConnell summed it up this way:
"Islam is allowed to come to this country, Islam is allowed to worship in this country, Islam is allowed to preach in this country and they preach hate. And for years we are not allowed to give a tract out, we are not allowed in Islam, we are not allowed to preach the gospel. We are persecuted in Islam if we stand for Jesus Christ."
April 2015. Hereford. Andrew Geuter, a Christian street preacher, was arrested after he was wrongly accused of making homophobic comments by a member of the public. He was held for five hours, during which time he was interviewed before being released on conditional bail. The police later determined to take no action due to insufficient evidence.
March 2015. Taunton, Somerset. Michael Overd, a Christian street preacher, was convicted of a public order offense for quoting a Bible passage condemning homosexuality. He was fined £200. District Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi, a Muslim, told Overd he could instead have chosen another Bible passage deemed by the judge to be less offensive. After the trial, Overd said:
"I am amazed that the judge sees it as his role to dictate which parts of the Bible can and can't be preached. I did not quote the full text of Leviticus 20 or make reference to the death penalty, but the judge is telling me that I should use other parts of the Bible. This is not free speech but censorship. The judge is redacting the Bible.
"I have been ordered to pay compensation for causing 'emotional pain' to someone who approached me aggressively demanding to debate the issue. There was no harm, injury or theft, just a simple disagreement over theology which I have now been fined for."
The President of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, said that the ruling appeared to make the quoting of certain passages of the Bible illegal. "Whilst we all want to encourage public civility, there is a higher principle at stake," he said. "As long as there is no incitement to violence, then people should be allowed to speak freely without fearing legal repercussions."
On December 11, 2015, Overd won an appeal against his public order conviction for using the "wrong" Bible verse in public. Circuit Judge David Ticehurst, sitting at Taunton Crown Court, ruled that the Crown Prosecution Service failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify the conviction. Overd said:
"Today the Court was faced with the farcical situation of a witness telling the judge that he couldn't even remember what I had said, but simply asserting that it was 'homophobic' — as though the mere assertion that something is 'homophobic' is enough to curtail free speech.
"In this country, we are now in the ludicrous situation where the slightest accusation of a 'phobia,' be it 'homophobia' or 'Islamophobia,' is enough to paralyze rational action by the police and authorities. The highly politicized dogma of 'phobias' now too often results in trumped up charges and legal action. There is a chilling effect.
"Reasonable, law-abiding people now feel that they can't say certain things and that is dangerous. Totalitarian regimes develop when ordinary people feel that there are certain things that can't be said.
"Rather than prizing freedom of expression and protecting it, the police and the prosecutors risk undermining it, because they've become paranoid about anyone who might possibly feel offended."
February 2014. Banbury. Bill Edwards, a 73-year-old street preacher, was arrested outside Banbury Magistrates' Court after some people inside the building found his preaching "offensive." He was taken to a nearby police station, where he was grabbed by six officers and pinned to the floor. In February 2014, Oxford Magistrates' Court cleared Edwards, a former teacher, of all charges. An application for a restraining order to prevent Edwards from preaching outside Banbury Court House was refused; he was reimbursed for his travel expenses.
"The officer told me to stop as I was breaking the law. I asked him what law I was breaking and he replied that I was in breach of the peace. When I asked him to explain, he pointed to my mp3 recorder and said I was too loud. I pointed out to the officer that I wasn't using amplification, but just my natural voice. I then asked him what a reasonable sound level would be. The police officer replied that the noise level isn't the issue, but rather that a complaint had been made. I tried to reason with the officer, explaining that such argumentation is subjective as anyone can claim anything is too loud. After a few more minutes I was placed in the back of a police van."
September 2013. Basildon, Essex. Rob Hughes, a 38-year-old street preacher, was arrested and jailed after he was accused by a lesbian bystander of engaging in hate speech against homosexuals. The woman in question had earlier confronted Hughes shouting that she was "gay and proud" then proceeding to tell him to "get down off your pedestal, you judgmental ****. Homophobia is not in this town." Hughes, who had recorded everything he said while preaching, explained that he had said nothing about the issue of homosexuality and asked that her request not to be judged be extended also to him. He was later released and informed that no further action would be taken due to insufficient evidence. In May 2015, as part of an out-of-court settlement, Hughes received £2,500 and a contribution towards his legal fees for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and breach of his human rights.
August 2013. London. Dominic Muir, a Christian street preacher, was arrested for preaching in the Battersea Park area. A police officer asked Muir if he had obtained permission to preach in the area. When he responded that he did not, he was told that he would be prosecuted. The council alleged that Muir had breached little-used by-laws which ban street preaching in certain parts of the borough. In September 2013, during the first hearing at Richmond upon Thames Magistrates' Court, Muir entered a not guilty plea. The council subsequently dropped the case against Muir.
July 2013. London. Tony Miano, an American evangelist, was arrested and jailed during the Wimbledon Championships while preaching on the street about sexual immorality. He was part of Sports Fan Outreach International, an evangelistic effort in England to share the Gospel with attendees of the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament. Approximately a dozen or more men and women were on the streets preaching, distributing tracts and engaging in one-on-one conversation with spectators. Miano, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff, was preaching about sexual immorality from the book of First Thessalonians when a female passer-by became agitated by his message and began to curse. She then called the police to complain. Moments later, officers arrived and notified Miano that he had allegedly violated Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which prohibits public language that is threatening or insulting. After being booked, photographed and fingerprinted, he was released without charge.
February 2012. Inverness, Scotland. Kenneth Macdonald, a well-known evangelist, was cleared of behaving in an abusive manner while preaching the gospel in Inverness city center. In January 2011, a shopkeeper had falsely accused Macdonald of harassing passers-by. After more than a year of legal proceedings, Macdonald was acquitted.
September 2011. Manchester. John Craven, a Christian street preacher, was arrested and jailed for reading from the Bible after two gay teenagers asked him about his views on homosexuality. He added that "whilst God hates sin, He loves the sinner." The teens then began to kiss in front of him and perform sexual acts. They then reported Craven to a nearby mounted police constable, who placed him under arrest for "public order offenses." After spending 19 hours in jail, police told him there would be no charges and no further action. In March 2014, Craven was awarded £13,000 in compensation after a three-year legal battle against Greater Manchester Police estimated to have cost taxpayers £50,000.
December 2010. Birmingham. Anthony Rollins, an autistic Christian street preacher who was arrested for speaking out against homosexuality, was awarded £4,250 in damages following a court case against West Midlands Police. Birmingham County Court ruled that Police Constable Adrian Bill committed assault and battery against Rollins when he handcuffed him unnecessarily. The court also ruled that Rollins was wrongfully arrested, unlawfully detained and his human rights to free speech and religious liberty were infringed. The court ordered the police to pay Rollins' legal costs.
April 2010. Workington, Cumbria. Dale McAlpine, a 42-year-old Christian street preacher, was charged with causing "harassment, alarm or distress" after a homosexual police officer overheard him reciting a number of "sins" referred to in the Bible, including blasphemy, drunkenness and same-sex relationships. McAlpine said that he did not mention homosexuality while delivering his sermon but admitted telling a passer-by that he believed it was against the word of God. Police officers alleged that he made the remark in a voice loud enough to be overheard by others and charged him with using abusive or insulting language, contrary to the Public Order Act. McAlpine was taken to the police station and locked in a cell for seven hours. Prosecutors later dropped the case due to a lack of evidence.
March 2010. Glasgow. Shawn Holes, a 47-year-old American street preacher, was fined £1,000 for "uttering homophobic remarks" that were "aggravated by religious prejudice." Holes, a New Yorker who was touring Britain with colleagues, was arrested by police while responding to questions from people in Glasgow City Center. He said later:
"There were homosexuals listening – around six or eight of them – who were kissing each other and cuddling, and asking 'What do you think of this?' It felt like a set-up by gay campaigners. When asked directly about homosexuality, I told them homosexuals risked the wrath of God unless they accepted Christ."
Holes said that he had no choice but to admit the charge at Glasgow Sheriff Court because he wanted to fly home to see his wife, and his father, who is in a hospice. However, he said he had expected to be fined only about £100.
August 2009. Manchester. Miguel Hayworth and his father, John Hayworth, two street preachers, were accused by police of inciting religious and racial hatred for reading from the Bible and handing out tracts at St. Ann's Square. Miguel Hayworth said:
"At 2 pm, I was approached on more than one occasion by several police officers who falsely accused me, stating that I was inciting hatred with homophobic and racial comments. One plain-clothed officer, who was with the other two uniformed officers, said: 'It is against the law to preach and hand out tracts: preaching causes offense and handing out tracts is harassment and could result in an arrest.'"
Hayworth said that at about 2.30 pm another officer warned him that he could be arrested and that his actions were being filmed and recorded. He stopped preaching. Critics claimed that a Muslim preaching Islam in the street would not have been treated in such a way by police.