Missionary Bruce Balfour returns home to Calgary after release from Lebanon

Bruce Balfour talks with the media after arriving in Calgary Friday. (CP/Adrian Wyld)
CALGARY (CP) - A Canadian missionary who was detained in Lebanon, but later acquitted of collaborating with Israel, was elated to be back on his native soil Friday evening.

"I'm grateful that I've got a country that honours freedom and helped in some way," said a relieved Bruce Balfour as he arrived at Calgary International Airport. "Without it, I'm sure I'd still be there today." Balfour had high praise for Canadian embassy staff in Lebanon, saying they worked tirelessly on his behalf.

The missionary had been in custody since he was arrested July 10 at Beirut airport.

He had been in the Middle East directing an evangelical project to help replant the biblical cedar forests in northern Lebanon.

Balfour pleaded not guilty when a military prosecutor accused him of visiting Israel and collaborating with the enemy, a charge punishable by 15 years in jail.

A tribunal found him not guilty last week of collaboration, but convicted him of inciting sectarian sentiments. It ruled the seven weeks he had spent in detention was sufficient and ordered him deported.

Lebanon is technically at war with Israel and bars any traveller carrying a passport with an Israeli stamp.

After his ordeal in what he earlier described as a "hell-hole" of a jail, Balfour said his only plan was to go out to dinner with some friends.

"I'm going to take it an hour at a time and ask God where I should step next and that's where I'll step," he said.

Balfour, whose spent a week in Los Angeles first, said he couldn't arrive home soon enough.

"When I was flying over from London (on my way to Los Angeles), I was flying over all that Canadian soil and I just wished I could jump out and stay," he said.

Even though his work in Lebanon is not finished, the missionary was adamant he would not go back to the Middle Eastern country.

"Absolutely not - not with this regime in power," said Balfour. "I'm banned for five years. I'd be a colossal fool to even go near the place. I'm as good as dead if I go back there.

"I'm very sad it had to end this way. We had such dreams for one day plastering the mountainsides with forest and letting them grow, but that's over."

Laura Mackenzie, Balfour's sister, said she's not all that surprised her brother found himself in the middle of what turned out to be an international incident.

"He just goes where he thinks he should be and he doesn't worry too much about the consequences," said Mackenzie from her home in Clearwater, B.C.

"But I think he'll be a little more cautious after this episode," she said.

Her brother's arrest kept her awake night after night, she said.

"I was extremely worried because we were told he could get anything from deportation to the death penalty. I mean, how do you know how it's going to go," said Mackenzie.

Balfour's joyous homecoming is in sharp contrast with the situation of William Sampson, another Canadian who was jailed in the Middle East.

Sampson, 44, was released from a Saudi jail last month after nearly three years in solitary confinement. He had been charged with murder in a car-bomb attack on a Briton and was sentenced to death, but says he was tortured into a confession.

Sampson and his family have been bitterly critical of the Canadian and British governments, saying officials didn't do enough to secure his release