Coptic Church strips alleged paedophile priest of clerical status

Decision by Pope Tawadros II comes as MeToo movement builds in Egypt

ABU DHABI - UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - 13MAY2014 - Coptic pope Tawadros II at a press conference yesterday at Ritz Carlton hotel in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National (tog o with Lindsay story for Nation)
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Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has stripped a priest accused of paedophilia of his clerical status, including the Christian name he was given when ordained.

The church’s move added another layer to the MeToo wave gripping Egypt since dozens of women began last month to publicly share on social media their stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Their decision to publicise their ordeals began with the case of a young man accused by dozens of women last month of sexually assaulting and blackmailing them.

The church’s move against the priest was announced on Friday night by Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of the orthodox church, which has by far the largest following among Egypt’s estimated 10 million to 15 million Christians.

Identified as Reweiss Aziz Khalil, the priest has been accused of sexually assaulting children in Egypt and the US, where he occasionally served and is believed to be living now.

He was defrocked in 2014 after complaints against him but he is believed to have quietly continued to preside over religious functions.

The church stripped him of his priesthood name and restored his layman’s name, Youssef Aziz Khalil.

The papal statement also demanded that authorities in the US and Egypt “revoke any recognition” of him as a priest of the church.

It said his crime was the “repeated infringements that are unacceptable to the priesthood and its ministry”. It gave no details.

A Christian woman who said she was assaulted by the priest at her family home in Florida in 1997, when she was 11, complained about the time it took the church to act.

She was 16 when she decided to complain but only recently shared her ordeal publicly.

“It has been 17 years of me fighting for justice,” she wrote in a recent online post.

“I have spoken to countless priests, bishops, monks and servants and have sent letters to both [the late] Pope Shenouda and Pope Tawadros.

"Reweiss has since snuck around and got caught serving in different places many times over the years, but the church still refuses to remove him from priesthood.

“We need to get one thing straight: paedophilia is not a sin that can just be repented. It's a disease that needs to be clinically managed for life.

"A paedophile does not belong in priesthood. Period.”

Ishak Ibrahim, a prominent expert on Egypt’s Christians, said there was nothing to suggest that paedophilia was rampant in the Coptic Orthodox Church but he acknowledged that cases of moral and financial corruption existed.

"The situation will be healthier if such cases are dealt with transparently and if a balance is found in the relation between the clergy and members of the Christian community," Mr Ibrahim told The National.

The case surfaced less than two years after the church was rocked by the killing of a bishop in a desert monastery, a crime that opened a window into the cloistered world of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

It is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and the one that introduced monasticism to the faith.

That killing, for which a monk was sentenced to death this month, exposed a side of the church that few in Egypt knew existed.

It showed the growing power and independence of monks in remote monasteries, who appear to be at odds with Pope Tawadros and the church’s central leadership.

The church has found a strong and uncompromising supporter in President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who came to power in 2013.

But many among young and intellectual Christians maintain that while Mr El Sisi’s government has done a great deal for the community, much has yet to be redressed.

They mainly refer to the frequency of sectarian attacks and discrimination against Christians in rural areas, and occasional acceptance by some local officials of extremists.