Understanding cultures: Muslim prison chaplain charts new territory

He’s a commercial pilot who moved to Canada for more flying opportunities, but recently Khaled Al-Nahar has been filing a completely different type of flight plan.

Khaled Al-Nahar

Khaled Al-Nahar

WINNIPEG — He’s a commercial pilot who moved to Canada for more flying opportunities, but recently Khaled Al-Nahar has been filing a completely different type of flight plan.

The native of Amman, Jordan, and decade-long resident of Winnipeg is now the first chaplain hired by Manitoba Justice to minister specifically to Muslim prisoners. Contracted for two days a week, he divides his time between the Headingley Correctional Centre and the Winnipeg Remand Centre.

“Being a Muslim and being born overseas, I have the Islamic values and the cultural values,” says Al-Nahar, 39, of what he brings to the position. “I understand the cultural differences.”

The father of two young children says he’ll juggle his new job with his ongoing responsibilities as office manager for the Manitoba Islamic Association and his geography studies at the University of Manitoba. Although this job won’t get him up in the air, his experience as a pilot won’t be wasted, he says.

“You’re taking responsibility for yourself and people on board and people on the ground,” he says of what is expected of a commercial pilot. “It’s not an easy task and you have to have good judgment. You’re a team player at one point and at another point you have to make a decision and be responsible for it.”

Those team-building skills are useful in working with prisoners and their families, says the chaplaincy co-ordinator for Manitoba Justice.

“Life experience is critical and reflection skills are critical and even more the ability to empathize with people who are marginalized and hurting,” explains Bernie Mullins of the abilities required for prison chaplaincy. As the first Muslim chaplain in the Manitoba prison system, Al-Nahar hasn’t had the same educational opportunities and clinical training as Christian chaplains, but he will be offered ongoing skills training, Mullins says.

Initially, the position is funded only until March 31, 2010, but Mullins has recommended it continue into the next fiscal year.

In addition to one-on-one visits with Muslim inmates at both institutions, Al-Nahar will also advise Manitoba Justice on issues specific to the growing Muslim population behind bars, says Mullins, including dietary restrictions and religious duties such as praying five times a day.