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The Professor and the Prisoner


(Photo: Debra Fieguth. Inset/below: Public Domain)

By Debra Fieguth

A PASSIONATE English professor and committed Anglican has spent the last seven years on a mission to educate one of Canada’s most infamous citizens. And she isn’t finished yet.

In 2008, Arlette Zinck, who was also Dean of Arts at The King’s University in Edmonton, heard a lawyer at a King’s conference describe the “hopeless” case of Omar Khadr. Khadr was accused of killing, when he was just 15, an American medic in Afghanistan during a firefight at a compound. Tortured at Bagram detention centre in Afghanistan, Khadr had been sent to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison run by the American military in Cuba. And there he stayed.

Zinck’s first response was to walk alongside the dozens of King’s students who felt compassion towards Khadr and wanted to reach out to him. They wrote letters, organized rallies, prayed, and learned and shared what they could about the situation.

“‘Hopeless’ can’t be part of … a faithful Christian’s vocabulary,” Zinck reasoned when she heard lawyer Dennis Edney speak despairingly of Khadr’s prospects of ever leaving Guantanamo.

But as students do, they moved on. Zinck, however, continued to correspond with the young man whose education had halted somewhere around age 14 and who was now shackled to the floor of a solitary prison cell. Letters turned into suggestions for books to read, and then discussions on the books, and before she knew it, Zinck was invited by the U.S. military to devise a curriculum for Khadr.

“By the miracle of God’s work, Omar himself eventually became one of my students, and so it’s continued on to this day.”

She recruited colleagues at King’s as well as other academics and high school teachers to develop courses. She visited Guantanamo Bay occasionally to teach Khadr in person. She was invited to testify at his sentencing trial, described by many as fraudulent.

Khadr was finally returned to Canada in 2013, first spending 10 months at Millhaven Penitentiary in Ontario before being transferred to a medium security prison in Alberta. Last May he was released on bail, sent to live with his lawyer and family, and now experiences relative freedom moving about Edmonton while wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle.

He is still finishing high school but when he is ready, King’s is prepared to accept him as a student. The university has an open admissions policy, meaning students need not adhere to the Christian faith. Faculty, however, are committed Christians and are expected to teach according to Christian values. “We hold open the gospel to people,” explains president Melanie Humphreys. “Faith is integrated in classrooms.”

Born in Canada, Khadr is a Muslim from a radical family. A year after his arrest, Khadr’s  controversial jihadist father, long suspected of al-Qaeda connections, was killed in a shootout with Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border.

Yet Humphreys, Zinck and others see engagement with the young Khadr as a multi-faceted gospel opportunity: showing hospitality to the stranger; visiting the prisoner; practicing restorative justice. Zinck describes this involvement as a “timely and very, very important biblical call.”

It hasn’t all been easy. Apart from the enormous demands on her time, Zinck has had to navigate a military structure she has sometimes found confusing and contradictory – despite being a self-described “proud military kid” whose father served in the Canadian military. She also receives occasional criticism from fellow Christians.

“The Christian community is a deeply human community,” she points out. “I’m not disconcerted or alarmed to discover that human brokenness in the Church.” But with honesty and transparency, she says, church members “declare to one another that we are there not because we’re perfect, but because we seek to forgive and to be forgiven.”

Zinck credits her parish, St. John the Evangelist, and the Diocese of Edmonton with supporting her over the last seven challenging, sometimes gruelling and sometimes dark years. Because parishioners knew – whether through the media or personal interaction – what she was involved in, they often approached her to say “‘I know this is going on; rest in the knowledge that I’ve been praying for you,’” she says.

With 400 people attending services on a Sunday, St. John the Evangelist is the largest Anglican church in Edmonton. Rev. Don Aellen, the rector, describes Zinck as “a very godly woman. She loves her Lord. She loves the Church. She loves her vocation as a teacher….There’s not a disingenuous bone in her body,” he adds.

“What I particularly value about Arlette in our community is her witness to gospel imperatives,” adds Rev. Matthew Oliver. “Whether you agree with the particular focus of her work with Omar or not, she presents a compelling icon of a Christian struggling to make a gospel-centred witness in the world.” 

Although Zinck focuses on the educational side of Khadr’s story (her husband, Robert Betty, has been more involved in the advocacy work), she has responded to invitations to speak of her experience. Many were moved when she gave a Good Friday talk about how the Cross intersects with life. “It was an amazing kind of thing,” says Aellen.

Zinck adds, “The bishop [Jane Alexander] always knew what I was up to. She quietly was encouraging.” In fact Zinck was asked to speak for five minutes to delegates at a diocesan synod one year. “They gave me a standing ovation. Literally, I was fighting back tears.”

Looking back to that day seven years ago that got the whole story rolling, Zinck sometimes jokes that she “wouldn’t have gotten out of bed that morning” if she’d known what the challenge would lead to.

But she did get up, and she did respond. “For me this has been about the absolute understanding that…if we are to be faithful we have to fear transgressing against the God who is love more than we fear the U.S. military, more than we fear the condemnation of peers, more than we fear the shame and disgrace of doing something that people aren’t going to stand up and applaud.”    TAP




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