With ouster of priest accused of pedophilia, Coptic Church mobilizes against sexual abuse

LOS ANGELES — The Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.S., shaken by recent 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, Florida, by Father 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 Los Angeles 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 in July — 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 sympathiz...

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