After Muslims had a violent reaction as two street preachers cited quotes from the Bible, the preachers were brought to court by prosecutors in the United Kingdom – and now they’ve both been cleared of charges.
However, a British Christian organization warns the message the prosecutors sent throughout the dispute is alarming: Submit to Islam’s Shariah law, and the government will “enforce the Islamist agenda of prohibiting any criticism of Islam.”
According the international Christian ministry Barnabas Fund, street preachers Michael Stockwell and Michael Overd were convicted in a lower court but then found not guilty of inciting public disorder at Bristol Crown Court.
The lower-court decision, from Bristol Magistrates Court, founded them guilty of an offense under the Crime and Disorder Act, and although the appeals court cleared them, the message left by the prosecution is concerning, the Christian organization explained.
The two were confronted and badgered by passersby while they were preaching and citing quotations from the King James Bible, the group said.
Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea have collaborated to create “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” which shows how Christians have become “the world’s most widely persecuted religious group.”
“At their trial in February, the lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service claimed that this was irrelevant, arguing that publicly quoting from the King James Bible in modern Britain should ‘be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter,’” the ministry explained.
“Serious questions must now be asked about the conduct of both Avon and Somerset Police, who arrested the preachers, and the CPS. Barnabas Fund has seen the official transcript of the video recording that the two men made of their preaching. The preachers were clearly attracting a crowd of disorderly hecklers who were swearing at and abusing them. Yet none of the hecklers were arrested – only the street preachers who, whilst robust in stating the Biblical teaching, were respectful towards those asking questions,” the group charged.
“However, even if people express their ideas very strongly, or even offensively, they are still entitled to freedom of speech. Not all Christians will be comfortable with the style of the men’s preaching. However, if those people are silenced, the next to be silenced will be people saying the same things in a gentler way.
“It is also clear from the transcript of the preaching that much of the heckling centered on questions about Islam, and the question must be asked as to whether some hecklers were deliberately seeking to set them up. If so, then what the police have effectively done by arresting the preachers is to enforce the Islamist agenda of prohibiting any criticism of Islam.
“The actions of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must also come under scrutiny. If the CPS felt that the manner in which the men were delivering their preaching was causing a disturbance, such as by being too loud, then they could have prosecuted them under nuisance laws. Instead, they chose to prosecute them for the content of their preaching. Consequently, as the preachers’ defense solicitor Michael Phillips commented in February, the case had become in effect a ‘modern day heresy trial’,” the report said.
Barnabas Fund noted the case risked a decision that would have created a standard of censorship “on the public reading of the Bible.”
Another organization, Christian Concern, likewise expressed dismay about the treatment of the Christians.
The two men were arrested in July 2016 for preaching at a Bristol shopping center.
Christian Concern noted video evidence submitted to the court shows Overd being interrupted and forcibly removed from the scene by a police officer.
“But the court found Mr. Overd and Mr. Stockwell guilty under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for using ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated.’”
They originally were each ordered to pay more than $2,000 in fines and costs.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, expressed gratitude for the appeals ruling, especially since this is a time in which Christians “are becoming increasingly fearful about expressing their beliefs in the public space.”
Stockwell, in a statement, said he was shocked that God’s message “is now considered by some to be hateful and dangerous.”
He continued, “People should be free to express their beliefs in public, without risk of harm, violence or other repercussions.”
It’s not the first time U.K. courts have presumed to dictate religious speech.
Overd also was involved in a dispute several years ago in which a trial judge stunningly told him he couldn’t quote Leviticus to explain Christian perspective on homosexuality.
Records from that case show it was Taunton Crown Court Circuit Judge David Ticehurst who reversed the outcome.
Overd had been convicted by a judge, Shamim Ahmed Qureshi, who also served with the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, the overseer of the nation’s Shariah courts.
Qureshi had taken the “extraordinary step” of determining and announcing in court which Bible verses “it was appropriate for Mr. Overd to use in his public explanation of the Bible’s teaching on homosexual practice,” the organization reported.
Qureshi told Overd he should not have referenced Leviticus Chapter 20 in explaining the biblical view on homosexuality, but “clearly indicated that he could have used Chapter 18 of the book.”
Overd had been taking part in street-preaching activities in Taunton, Somerset, at the time. Homosexuals filed the complaint, alleging Overd had “offended” them.
“The Evidence Bible” is now available and includes, besides the King James version, dozens of articles expanding answers to questions such as why is there suffering, explanations about what Muslims believe and scientific facts written millennia before man discovered them.