EDMONTON – An Edmonton imam who was “strangled” by religious police and jailed for 36 hours during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia wants the federal government to ensure the future safety of the 10,000 Canadians who make the annual trek.
Usama Al-Atar, who is also a researcher at the University of Alberta, said many countries form delegations to provide support to residents making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and to ensure their safety. He wants Canada to do the same, he said at a Sunday press conference, and has offered to help establish such a delegation.
Al-Atar returned home to friends and family Friday – his wife Dhamya is expecting the couple’s second child within days – after finally completing a traditional Islamic pilgrimage undertaken by millions of Muslims around the world known as the hajj.
If the Canadian government had support staff in the city for visitors, Al-Atar believed his time in custody would’ve been far shorter. They could’ve immediately begun working on his release, he said.
“Had there been a hajj delegation present in the city of Medina during my ordeal I would have been released almost instantaneously.”
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His ordeal began on the morning of Oct. 30th when Al-Atar was approached by religious police as he recited prayers to a group of 15 Canadian and British Muslims. Members of the religious police are from a particular sect of Islam that is considered extreme, but Al-Atar said he’d never encountered problems on eight previous visits.
“I was told to leave, basically,” Al-Atar said. “And I said: ‘Look, we’re visitors here and we’re only here for a couple of days. There’s a big group with me here that is not fluent in Arabic and cannot conduct these (prayers) on their own. We’re not intending any harm.’”
The police started to shout at Al-Atar, and the harassment quickly escalated to physical force.
“I was strangled,” he said, adding he offered no resistance.
He said although there was a group of officers it was one in particular who assaulted Al-Atar while the rest watched. He was taken to a small kiosk located outside the mosque and confined for 20 minutes before being handed over to the Medina police, whom he characterized as “professional and polite.”
He was arrested and charged with assault. That charge was subsequently dropped.
He was essentially severed from the outside world during his time in jail and passed the time with prayer. He shared a single cell with about 40 other people detained for a variety of reasons. He was surprised after his release to learn his story had been told by press across North America. He credited “media pressure” with his eventual release and felt Canadian officials were slow to react.
Al-Atar said he received a phone call from a Canadian Embassy official in Riyadh after he was released.
“I said to him, ‘I expected you guys to be there sooner,’ and his reply was that they couldn’t find a plane to get them the 800 kilometres from Riyadh to Medina because it’s the season of hajj,” Al-Atar said. “I was surprised at this answer, especially them being the Canadian government. I’m not sure how much effort was put into my release.”
He is now just glad to be home with family as he anticipates the arrival of his second child.
Next year, though, he plans to return to Medina and perform the annual pilgrimage.
“Oppression is very bitter,” says Al-Atar. “It has a very bitter taste. It made me feel how people in the world who are less fortunate would feel when they have no means of expressing themselves. Luckily, I’m a Canadian and luckily the media took up my cause, but there are many people in the world who are not as fortunate as I am, so I am really blessed to be here.”