For Coptic Church, Changes, Questions after Priest Ouster

By Mariam Fam
Associated Press
October 7, 2020

For 17 years, Sally Zakhari said she told priests and leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church her childhood nightmare — how a Coptic priest visiting from Egypt sexually abused her at her Florida home during what was supposed to be her first confession.

“I’ve already gone to countless bishops. I’ve already gone to two different popes,” she told The Associated Press. She went to police as well.

She said she watched the priest — Reweis Aziz Khalil — continue serving at Coptic churches. Then, Zakhari aired her allegations on social media in July and Khalil was stripped of his priesthood and ordered to return to his pre-ordination name days later.

In announcing the move, Khalil’s Minya and Abu Qurqas diocese in Egypt mentioned undated complaints by congregants in Egypt as well as from the United States and Canada. A papal decree said disciplinary action had been taken against Khalil in the past for “his repeated infringements.” Neither statement specified the nature of the complaints or “infringements.”

The papal decree said prior action against Khalil included “defrocking him from all ministry” in 2014. It wasn’t clear what that entailed and there were times when Khalil served as priest after 2014.

In response to questions and a request to interview Khalil, his attorney, Michelle Suskauer, said by e-mail: “Mr. Khalil will not be responding to your questions and denies all allegations against him.”

For Egypt’s ancient Coptic Church, which is usually closed about its inner workings, the allegations and the laicization after sexual abuse claims were unusually public and shocked many. In the aftermath, some anti-abuse efforts were announced and questions were raised about oversight and the handling of Zakhari’s allegations.

After Khalil’s ouster, several Coptic dioceses in America and other Western countries issued statements supporting survivors of clerical sexual abuse, encouraging members to report sexual misconduct or announcing protocols to handle claims and protect the vulnerable.

Some, like Zakhari, are using social media to keep the spotlight on how accusations are handled, setting off intense debates among some Coptic Christians. Others argue such issues are too sensitive for public airing and vetting or fear the scrutiny could be exploited to unfairly taint the church or its clergy — a concern amplified among some by Christians’ status as a religious minority in Egypt.

Despite Khalil’s removal, Zakhari, now 33, said she cannot celebrate.

“This has been too many years,” she said. “I’m not scandalizing anything. I’m just saying the truth.”


Over the years, as other faith communities publicly grappled with clerical abuse, the Coptic Church in Egypt was more likely to make headlines when targeted with violence by militant groups and other extremists. The church is the main community among Egypt’s Christian minority and has many followers who have emigrated to the United States and elsewhere.

“As Copts, we’re not used to discussing such things in public,” said Samuel Tadros, senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “While I’m sure that such cases have existed throughout time and are probably not limited to just one individual ... when they were handled, they were handled behind closed doors.”

Emotions run the gamut. Online, some criticized openly naming the priest and said “sins” shouldn’t be publicly exposed. Others praised the church for removing Khalil from the priesthood. Still others said leaders acted too slowly and demanded education about sexual misconduct and transparent and swift handling of accusations.

Zakhari said she is not trying to hurt the church she loves.

“We wanted this to just be handled,” she said.


It happened in the late 1990s when Zakhari was 11 or 12, she recounted in a statement she made to the Altamonte Springs Police Department in Florida in February 2013. (As a rule, the AP does not name survivors or alleged survivors of sexual abuse unless they have identified themselves publicly, as Zakhari has done.)

A first-generation American, she was born in Florida to parents who are “faithful servants” in the Coptic Church. The church was the center of her strict upbringing, she said.

According to the police report, Zakhari told authorities that Khalil, then a visiting priest from Egypt, was staying with her family in Florida. While alone with her, ostensibly to take her confession, Khalil touched her under her bra, squeezed and fondled her breasts and started kissing her face, neck, ears and lips and forced his tongue inside her mouth, she said in the report, which was viewed by the AP.

As he left, her statement to police said, Khalil told her whatever happens in confession is a secret.

The Altamonte Springs Police Department said an investigator discussed Zakhari’s report with the state attorney’s office and it was determined then that the statute of limitations had expired.








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