Called to visit prisoners — even a terrorist

Jun 23, 2014 by

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“I was in prison and you visited me.” Christians have used that verse as a reason to serve prisoners across North America. But does that include someone convicted of terrorism? Arlette Zinck believes it does.



For almost four years, Zinck — an associate professor of English at a Christian Reformed Church college in Edmonton, Alta. — has been visiting Omar Khadr, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to the death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was 15 when he was involved in the 2002 firefight with U.S. troops. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and sent to Canada in 2012 to serve out his time.

Zinck became involved with Khadr, now 27, in 2008 when he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She wrote to him, and he wrote back. They struck up a friendship, and soon she was sending him books to read and quizzing him on their contents.

In 2010 Khadr’s U.S. military defense team asked her to become his tutor. She visited him twice in Cuba to provide in-person instruction.

When he was repatriated to Canada, Khadr ended up in a maximum security prison in Edmonton. Zinck arranged for other professors to join her in offering lessons in subjects such as math, literature, history and geography.

One of Khadr’s favorite books was Rudy Wiebe’s classic tale of Mennonites dealing with the impact of war, Peace Shall Destroy Many. Since Wiebe also lives in Edmonton, he visited Khadr.

“I found him to be a very amenable and understanding young man,” says Wiebe, a member of Edmonton’s Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church.

“What he found important in the book was how to live your convictions in a changing world. What do you do about your traditions and teachings when the world is changing?”

For Khadr, who was taken from Canada by his father to al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan when he was just 10 years old, the lessons and visits were a chance to get the education he missed as a child.

For Zinck, who attends an Anglican church, working with Khadr is a chance to use her gift of teaching and put into practice her Christian faith. This includes her belief in restorative justice.

For her, justice is not about vengeance but restoring the offender. But does that include a convicted terrorist? Zinck says yes.

“The goal is to renew, restore and reconcile those who have erred, even those who have erred horribly,” she says.

At the same time, she is concerned for the widow of the soldier killed in the firefight that involved Khadr.

“She also deserves meaningful support,” she adds.

Zinck knows that not everyone agrees with what she is doing. But she feels that is because many have only heard one side of Khadr’s story. They don’t realize he is also a victim, forced into becoming a child soldier by his father. Khadr himself says he only pleaded guilty so he could leave Cuba and return to Canada.

She also is inspired by Khadr himself, who has endured so much in his short life.

“I enjoy it [tutoring him] as much as teaching any student,” Zinck says. “But there is extra satisfaction in being a witness to the power of the human spirit, how he manages to focus on all that is good.“

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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  • Afroze Ali

    Mr. Longhurst erroneously calls Omar Khadr a “convicted terrorist”. Omar’s story is of a 15 year old Canadian boy caught up in an adult mess, and failed by all who should have had his back. The Canadian government, previous and present, chose not to follow the Rule of Law, nor its international obligations towards a child caught in armed conflict.

    Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. hell-holes showcase the depths of depravity of the U.S. government and it’s military. Omar is not a “convicted terrorist”. He is a survivor of extreme abuse. For the current Canadian government to continue his incarceration in Canada based on his “conviction” by an illegal and immoral military commission, brings shame on all Canadians.

    Afroze Ali
    Toronto, ON

  • Marlene Cuthbert

    My United Church congregation has corresponded with Omar since 2012. We investigated his case carefully and have found, like others who come to know him, a person who bears no relation to the “terrorist” of many headlines.
    U.S.Brigadier-General Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired military doctor & psychiatrist met with Omar for hundreds of hours in Guantanamo. Dr. Xenakis said he was ‘shocked’ to meet “such a nice, decent young man.” He was overwhelmed by Omar’s “thoughtfulness,his sensitivity, his civility, his honesty,” and said Omar is “a pawn in a bigger political dynamic…” in which “who he is and his character is lost” (CBC, 2013).
    Omar wrote in 2008 “I never had a choice in my past life, but I will build my future with the right bricks….”(Letter to the CBC). • And last year he wrote, “Life for me is too beautiful to stain it with unforgiveness or hate. These do not have a place within me. I have more important things than bad things. What I do feel is sadness for people who do bad things or allow bad things to happen to others” (Jan. 2013).
    Omar thanked us for our prayers for him and sent a beautiful Christmas card with a message of Peace, posted at where you can find documented quotes from both Omar and others who’ve known him. Omar is our friend and we look forward to the day when he will worship with us.

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