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The King’s University and Omar Khadr:

Heeding Christ’s call to visit the prisoner

“He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words,” U.S. President Barack Obama said, “that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity, but the imperative of a just society.” 

As soon as I heard Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the Charleston, South Carolina, preacher and U.S. State Senator who was murdered along with eight of his parishioners, I was struck by several things. I thought that Obama, who was obviously drawing from Matthew 25 (vs 35-45), might have added “to visit the prisoner,” and I thought of the individuals I know who embody the same idea. This article is about them – about how their Christian faith demanded deeds and not just words, how putting faith in action meant visiting, befriending and teaching the prisoner, and about how their own faith was impacted by doing so.

EDMONTON, Alberta – On May 8, 2015, after 13 years behind bars, mostly in the notorious Guantanamo Bay military prison, Omar Khadr, now 28, was released on bail, promising to prove to Canadians that “I am a good person.” As conditions of his bail, Khadr wears an electronic tracking device on his ankle and lives in the Edmonton home of his lawyer, Dennis Edney, and Edney’s family. Khadr’s release was a media event and a very emotional day for many, especially for a large number of students, faculty and friends at The King’s University in Edmonton.

The King’s involvement with Khadr began in the fall of 2008, when Edney gave the plenary address at the university’s fall Interdisciplinary Studies Conference. Approximately 600 students heard the story of Khadr, a Canadian citizen languishing in Guantanamo Bay prison after being captured in 2002 at age 15 following a firefight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Edney spoke of the horror of torture and interrogations happening there. He spoke about the rule of law, provisions made in international statutes for children – especially in circumstances of war – and how all of these laws were being ignored.

“Mr. Edney’s presentation brought The King’s community to the scene of an accident,” King’s English professor Arlette Zinck told Christian Courier. “Like the Samaritan traveler, we had only two choices: stop to help or walk on by. Our decision to stop was entirely consistent with our desire to respond with Christ-like compassion.”

Zinck and her colleagues challenged their students to learn all they could about the case from many points of view. Students read the House of Commons proceedings, they interviewed Members of Parliament, researched back issues of media reports and watched television documentaries produced about the case. They hosted a conference to discuss Khadr’s case and, together with Amnesty International and youth from the Al Rashid Mosque and the University of Alberta, a rally in support of his repatriation. Through Edney, and out of a desire to follow Matthew 25, several students began writing letters to Khadr. And King’s profs were invited by the U.S. military defense team to teach him. “My letters became lessons,” Zinck says. “And as we responded to this request, Omar became one of our students.”

With no formal education since Grade 8, the goal was to help Khadr complete his high school credits. Initially, there were as many as 15 instructors on the team. When Khadr moved to Edmonton in May of 2013, the team narrowed to eight. Now that he is out of prison, the team has expanded again slightly. Khadr has just completed his Grade 12 Social Studies course, written his Grade 12 English exam and is currently studying Math, Physics and Biology. His tutors used to visit him in prison. Now they go to Edney’s home.

“From the outset, the King’s community’s engagement with the Khadr case was shaped by a Shalom vision,” explains Zinck. (In a plea bargain, Khadr pleaded guilty to throwing a grenade that killed U.S. Army soldier, Christopher Speer.) “We sought health, healing and wholeness for all involved in the case, especially widow Speer and her two children. Students prayed for Mrs. Speer and her family. I still do.”

Seeking justice
The late Gerald Vandezande, co-founder of Citizens for Public Justice, “always reminded Christians that we are to seek justice, not ‘just us,’” which is what Margie Patrick, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at King’s, says inspired her to become involved with Khadr. 

“In other words,” she says, “we are called to respond to injustice, no matter who is being harmed and no matter whether they are ‘one of us’ or not. To me that is an essential aspect of the Matthew 25 passage. There was plenty of injustice in Omar’s story. I agree with those who believe we have a responsibility to respond. There is also a practical political reason for responding. If I as a Canadian and as a Christian want the rule of law to apply to me, I have to do what I can to ensure it applies to everyone. It had not been justly applied to Omar and that was deeply concerning.”

Patrick became a member of Khadr’s Social Studies team, visited him a number of times in prison until he completed and passed his Social Studies 30 [Grade 12] exam in August 2014, and she continues to tutor him at his new home in Edmonton. Patrick and Khadr discuss curriculum from their respective faith perspectives: Reformed and Muslim. “Our conversations are often theological in that we keep returning to the questions of ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does our faith require of us?’ ”

“It has been a delight to teach Omar,” Patrick says, “and I have learned much from him, especially about resiliency. He has gone through much. Yet he is able to study related issues with a great deal of openness and strength that I think can only come from a person who is grounded in their faith and in a community. He has been able to overcome bitterness. His courage and resiliency have prompted me to examine my own faith and discover at a more foundational level how it continues to form my character, to become even more aware of the importance of people of faith to speak in the public sphere as people of faith, and to reach deep in the face of adversity to dwell on the love and promises of God.”

Living it out
“Like many at King’s,” Will Van Arragon, Associate Professor of History, says, “I see a core principle of the Christian walk as being a passion for justice and reconciliation in the world. This is, of course, an empty cliché if it remains a mere abstraction; it is to be lived out in particular circumstances with particular real people. For whatever reason, Omar the person was placed in our path, beginning with Dennis Edney’s speech at King’s in 2008. It turned into a very specific call to ‘visit the prisoner,’ and many people in our community have heard that call. Omar has been as much a gift to us, to me, as we’ve been, I hope, to him. That’s been the real revelation to me and to many others about this experience. That’s the gospel call, too, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised since we’re told that when we visit the prisoner we meet Christ, but it was remarkable to watch that promise fulfilled.” 

Van Arragon describes how his faith has been enriched by his involvement with Khadr. “A big impact, for sure, is simply drawing inspiration from Omar’s own faithfulness. He is a kind, centered and deeply compassionate person, someone whose faith is obviously at the core of his being. And that’s wonderful. He’s also, and it may seem odd to say it this way, a remarkably normal person, given what he’s gone through – interested in soccer, pop culture, books and many other things; and he’s very funny – he has a lovely and goofy sense of humour. That he is so ‘whole’ is a tribute to his resilience, and I’d credit his faith as essential to that.”

“It’s been a profound privilege to teach Omar,” concludes Van Arragon, “and to get to know him. It’s also been a privilege to witness in action the gifts of colleagues and students at King’s, to watch how this experience has stretched and enriched our community in ways we could not have anticipated. I’m very grateful.”

Support and setbacks
After 11 years of working for Khadr’s transfer from Guantanamo Bay prison and then his release on bail, lawyer Edney admits he is tired.

“It’s been a long journey – and a lonely one, at times.” Edney has been Khadr’s pro bono lawyer, meaning he has done years of work at great personal cost to him and his family. Yet Edney doesn’t see what he is doing as being any different from a surgeon going abroad to provide free surgery to the poor and disadvantaged.

“It’s about using the gifts you’ve been given,” he says. When asked what motivates him, he responds with, “I am a criminal lawyer. I am committed to justice.” The emails that keep coming – hundreds upon hundreds – from as far away as Warsaw, London and Paris, but primarily from Canadians, communicate their gratitude to Edney. The wider Edmonton community has been exceptionally warm and welcoming to Khadr, he says, including the janitor and sheriff at the courthouse, neighbours, members of the synagogue near Edney’s home, an employee at Home Depot, people who see him at West Edmonton Mall, where one bought him ice cream. “They often say something nice to Omar,” Edney says, “telling him they are glad he is out. They are not intrusive.”

Edney’s work is far from over, however. On July 2, 2015, in the state of Utah, a $134 million lawsuit by Speer’s widow was successfully launched against Khadr. No lawyer in Utah stepped forward to take Khadr’s side in the civil lawsuit, despite Edney’s attempts to find counsel there. Although many feel doubtful that a Canadian court will uphold the ruling, for Khadr’s supporters it is a disappointing bump in the road.

The King’s mission statement, which declares that its university education will “inspire and equip learners to bring renewal and reconciliation to every walk of life as followers of Jesus Christ, the Servant-King,” helps summarize the story of this community’s engagement with a Muslim named Omar Khadr.

“We needed to ‘walk the talk,’ so to speak,” President Melanie Humphreys says. “It is a matter of institutional integrity as much as it is a matter of hope. Hope for the renewal and reconciliation that is expressed in our Mission. Hope for shalom. Hope for those who most need hope – which is all of us at some point. The hope of the gospel that he, being Jesus Christ, is able to make all things new in his time.”

  • A former nurse, hospital chaplain & counsellor, Janet lives in Edmonton where she now works as a freelance writer.

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