Canadian university college reaches out to Omar Khadr

EDMONTON, AB—During his darkest hours as a prisoner in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detainment camp for suspected terrorists, Omar Khadr found comfort reading and rereading letters written to him by a professor at King's University College.

"Your letters are like candles very bright in my hardship and darkness," Khadr wrote to Arlette Zinck, an English professor and dean of arts at the Edmonton school, from his cell in January 2009.

After two years of sending Khadr encouraging words, novels to read and writing assignments, Zinck met Khadr face-to-face in a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay in October.

Zinck was called to testify at Khadr's sentencing hearing.

"The whole experience was wondrous," Zinck told ChristianWeek a few days after her return from Cuba. "The young man I met in his letters is courteous, outward focused—remarkably so— intelligent, thoughtful and generous."

Their letters were used as evidence in the hearing.

The unusual correspondence began in 2008 after Dennis Edney, a lawyer representing Khadr, spoke at King's University College at a conference on the theme "Invisible Dignity." Edney challenged students to think about ways in which poverty or injustice obscure people's dignity as human beings, using Khadr's case as an example. After the conference a group of students researched Khadr—then the youngest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay—and began praying for him and sending him letters and postcards.

A Canadian citizen, Khadr was 11 years old when his father took him to Afghanistan to train as a fighter. At age 15 Khadr was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan during which American soldier Christopher Speer was killed. Khadr was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.

Canada's Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Khadr's rights have been violated during his imprisonment.

Khadr's trial, a process that has dragged on for five years, ended in October when Khadr pled guilty to terrorism, murder and spying as part of a plea deal that would cap his jail sentence at eight years and allow him to finish his sentence in Canada after serving one more year in Guantanamo Bay.

Meanwhile, King's University College, a small Christian undergraduate university, has found itself caught in the middle of a national debate about whether Khadr is a radical Jihadist or a misguided child soldier suffering the kind of interrogation and imprisonment reserved for hardened terrorists.

King's has no official stance on the issue but encourages its students and faculty to think critically, do their research and live out their Christian faith.

"We have no intention of silencing our students or our faculty," wrote Ken Schwanke, King's publicity person, in a recent campus newsletter.

Some of the school's supporters have chosen to stop contributing to King's, he says. Others have been supportive.

In her testimony at the hearing, Zinck assessed the character of Khadr as she interpreted it in his letters. "I stated my intent to read with intelligent charity," Zinck says, borrowing a term from American scholar, Alan Jacobs. "I do a Christian reading because I'm a Christian scholar." That reading implies a God who is loving, just, merciful and righteous, she says.

The military panel sentenced Khadr, now 24, to 40 years in prison. The sentence was replaced by Khadr's plea deal.

During Khadr's next year in prison Zinck and her colleagues at King's will provide a curriculum to help tutor Khadr.

Zinck says she's received some angry responses from people who don't agree with what she's doing.

"I understand. There hasn't necessarily been a lot of encouragement for Canadians to move beyond general fear and come to understand who [Khadr] is, and what the legal implications are for allowing the exceptions to the rule of law that have happened in Omar's case" says Zinck. "We are living in a culture of fear. As Christians we are commanded to fear God alone.

"When you fear God alone then you walk very purposefully and very decidedly toward that which you feel God calling you to do even when people write you scary letters."

Dear Readers:

If ChristianWeek has made a difference in your life, please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author