Coptic church mobilizes against sexual abuse after accusations
The Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.S., shaken in recent weeks by accusations of sexual abuse, has vowed to eradicate inappropriate behavior in its cloistered communities following the defrocking of a priest accused of pedophilia for decades.
The 2,000-year-old church, which was started in Egypt by the Apostle Mark and grew in the U.S. following a wave of immigration in the 1970s, is steeped in centuries-old traditions and rituals that define Christian Orthodoxy.
It is now contending with a new generation of activists among an estimated half-million Copts living in the U.S. in what is being described in the community as a “Coptic #MeToo” movement engrossing parishioners on social media.
The flashpoint started with Facebook and Instagram posts from Sally Zakhari, a 33-year-old Florida woman who said she was molested in Orlando by Fr. Reweiss Aziz Khalil in the late 1990s. Zakhari wrote that she was molested at home after Khalil convinced her mother that she should start confession. She was 11 or 12.
“He forcefully kissed me all over my face and in my mouth with his tongue. He forced me down, laid on top of me and did what he had to do (while he kept his black tunic on),” she wrote on July 14.
Khalil told the girl to remember to never tell anyone about what happens in confession, Zakhari wrote.
According to an investigative report by the church, Khalil has maintained his innocence. The Times’ attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
Zakhari, a pharmacist in Orlando who is also an advocate for survivors of abuse within the church and without, is starting a nonprofit organization called Coptic Survivor. Her social media posts this month — triggered by Khalil’s attempts to be assigned a new parish in Chicago — were retweeted, liked and shared thousands of times by parishioners and clergy, igniting a firestorm among young Copts online.
It took Zakhari five years to tell anyone. She didn’t tell her parents what she said happened in that bedroom until she was 19. Then, after years of inaction from church leaders, Zakhari filed a police report in Altamonte Springs, Fla., in 2013, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Times. But the statute of limitations had expired.
She remained a member of the church and was encouraged by other priests and their wives to report what she said happened to her to the Coptic patriarchs in Egypt, including the late Pope Shenouda III and its current spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II.
After Zakhari’s social media posts and other accusations emerged, Tawadros issued a decree July 18 laicizing Khalil, stripping him of his priestly rank and returning him to his preordination name: Yousef Aziz Khalil.
“By this decree, we notify all civic authorities in Egypt and in the United States of America to revoke any recognition of Yousef Aziz Khalil as a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church,” the signed document stated.
As it turns out, in 2014, Khalil, who is believed to be in his 60s, had been defrocked from all Coptic ministry globally for “repeated infringements that are unacceptable to the priesthood and its ministry,” the decree said.
Because of the insular community, Zakhari was able to track Khalil’s movements and find more alleged survivors in the U.S. and Egypt. Word would come back to her of a visiting priest, one who would tell a credible story of his church being attacked by terrorists in Egypt and who would solicit money from sympathizers.
Khalil’s laicization wasn’t enough for Zakhari. She is seeking the excommunication of all sexual predators in the church.
“I’m pushing us to do the right thing. I’m not against the church,” Zakhari said in an interview. “I want this place to be safe and Christ-like.”
Zakhari said Bishop Youssef, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the United States, told her to take down her social media posts. A spokeswoman for Youssef, who is based in Dallas/Fort Worth, said he did not pressure her to stop speaking out.
“In no way did Bishop Youssef ever seek to silence Ms. Zakhari; she was however asked to refrain from posting her personal statements on the diocese’s basketball website of which she was an administrator,” Sara Brady, the spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Samuel Tadros, a Middle East scholar and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Zakhari had “ignited a revolution” that would have repercussions.
“The church was forced to move finally and remove the priest completely,” Tadros said. “Bishops are forced to issue statements. Bishop Youssef is going to find some rock to hide under for some time. Other Copts will feel motivated to act.”
Tadros said that about 1 million Copts have permanent immigration status outside of Egypt, and the numbers have climbed in recent years, driven by a wave of immigration to the U.S. linked to the Arab Spring.
“The Copts are not insignificant in the U.S., but we’re so isolated in our churches to the extent that most Americans remain completely ignorant that we exist,” he said. “But it’s funny because, one of us [Rami Malek] won an Oscar.”
As such, the Coptic church is entrenched in Egyptian culture. For Copts, the church is not just a religious institution but also offers community by way of relationships, recreation, housing, career opportunities and other social outlets.
“We were hidden from the world for centuries, but the diaspora faces challenges that were not handled in Egypt,” Tadros said. “Challenges of identity, social problems, sexual orientation, gay rights and marriage pose challenges to the Coptic church in America that it never faced in Egypt. In Egypt, these issues are hidden by societal pressure and culture, so the church never needed to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, an Instagram account, @theburningbush20, is doing just the opposite. Its activism coincides with a women’s rights movement gaining traction in Egypt after accusations surfaced of serial sexual assault at the elite American University in Cairo.
Inspired by Zakhari, its organizers have been posting anonymously submitted allegations of abuse in the church, both in the U.S. and abroad, about three times a day since mid-July.
The allegations highlighted patterns of victim-blaming, silencing and inappropriate handling of cases. They also echoed the extremely high standards the church places on virginity, obedience and patriarchal mores, the organizers said. Often, the church dealt with alleged predators by moving them to another parish or sending them back to Egypt, particularly in cases of visiting priests or monks.
“We are a microcosm of this world,” the organizers said. “So the problems that occur in this world are going to occur in our community.”
In the Coptic Church, priests are allowed to marry. They usually must do so before being ordained. They are encouraged to have families to better understand their congregants. All members of the clergy, including the pope, must participate in confession because of the main church tenet that all men and women are fallible and subject to sin. These are distinctions often cited when Copts are compared to other Christians, particularly after the sexual abuse scandals that ravaged the Catholic Church.
After the papal decree and the social media campaign, statements issued by Coptic dioceses in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. denounced abuse and misconduct and pledged action-oriented plans.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” Mk9:42
Our clear mandate:
We are entrusted to faithfully protect our children, and accountable if we do not, or if we do harm pic.twitter.com/Xx2aM6HLXd
— Archbishop Angaelos (@BishopAngaelos) July 22, 2020
“We pledge our best efforts to prevent any such conduct, to immediately report allegations of such conduct to law enforcement, to promptly investigate such allegations, and to take appropriate action,” said a joint statement from the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese in New Jersey and New York and New England.
Metropolitan Serapion, the leader of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii, is working to revise a sexual misconduct policy and issue a handbook to “take real and transparent action to ensure there are no more victims.”
The policy, which has been applied across other U.S. dioceses, was last updated in 2013 and is being amended to keep up with the evolving statute of limitations laws following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that gripped Hollywood and beyond.
Serapion said in his 25 years with the diocese, only two cases of misconduct had been escalated to him; one involved a minor and was forwarded to law enforcement.
“Of course we say ‘forgive and forget’ to be healed, to overcome it. It doesn’t mean don’t press charges. Any reconciliation cannot be a real reconciliation without justice,” Serapion said.
His diocese’s strict policy does not allow visiting priests to serve in his churches and calls for incidents to be reported to authorities. It applies to clergy, employees and servants within the church, he said, all of whom will be required to undergo mandatory training on the policy and related protocols, including training on state-mandated reporting. He said he has done the training himself.
Additionally, a diverse committee of clergy and laity (men and women, including therapists) has been working on protocols regarding investigation and reporting, as well as counseling. He encouraged victims to come forward and use the resources at their disposal.
Priests are also speaking with their youth groups about sexual abuse and echoed the sentiments in the dioceses’ public statements. Some are seeking out medical and psychological professionals to build out a network of resources for victims.
Zakhari said she appreciated the words, but still thinks the church has been slow to act.
“I’m some random girl in Florida, and I got this priest removed in six days,” she said. “These hierarchs couldn’t do it for 17 years.”
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