Belfast preacher
Belfast Pastor James McConnell was greeted by supporters after he was cleared in courtReuters

A Belfast evangelist charged with hate speech against Muslims has been acquitted after a judge ruled that his sermon had not been sufficiently offensive.

Scores of Christian supporters cheered the judgment on 5 January at Belfast Magistrates Court as Pastor James McConnell walked free.

McConnell faced a charge of spreading grossly offensive messages after his church put his May 2014 sermon denouncing Muslims online.

Amid fears the case could fuel the case could fuel islamophobia in the province, the preacher apologised for any offence or distress he may have caused but declined to retract the remarks.

The police initially investigated a potential hate crime but the Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service decided to pursue the case under the misuse of public communications.

Outside the court, the 78-year-old McConnell said he hadn't intended to offend Muslims when describing their faith as satanic and many Muslims as terrorists. He said: "I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head," Associated Press reported.

District Judge Liam McNally said courts must be "careful not to criminalize speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of criminal law to censor offensive utterances."

McConnell said he would word his comments differently in future because he was conscious he might hurt ordinary Muslims adding that his only regret was the response from the Muslim community that he was "out to hurt them".

"There was no way I was out to hurt them - I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head.

"If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs I am totally against them," he said outside the court.

In May 2014, the Northern Ireland leader Peter Robinson apologised in private to Muslims for making controversial remarks about Islam – after stating he would not say sorry.

McConnell is one of Northern Ireland's best known evangelical preachers with a congregation in which politicians, ex-paramilitaries and police officers worship side by side, the Newsletter reported.

He described himself as Pentecostal with a "capital P" and his trial heard how he was not the average "watery clergyman" but someone who connected with society's "untouchables".