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The Politics of Sectarianism and Repentance in Egyptian Prisons: Notes from a Coptic Khidma

In the Coptic tradition and theology, khidma refers to services conducted in the name of Jesus, but also other members of the divine community. Since the mid of the twentieth century, the Coptic Church institution claimed a controlling of the means of delivering these services in an adequate manner. This piece presents an overview of the benefits and challenges of the prisons-related khidma with respect to the politics of sectarianism and the theology of repentance in Egypt.

In the Coptic tradition and theology, khidma refers to services conducted in the name of Jesus, but also other members of the divine community who reside in heaven, such as Mary, the angels, and saints. It encompasses a wide range of activities: from being a student or a teacher in a Sunday school class, to singing hymns, organizing trips to holy sites, leading spiritual gatherings, helping the poor or disabled, and paying visits to the sick, widowed, or imprisoned. Since the mid of the twentieth century in specific, the Coptic Church institution claimed a controlling of the means of delivering these services in an adequate manner. This piece presents an overview of the benefits and challenges of the prisons-related khidma with respect to the politics of sectarianism and the theology of repentance in Egypt.

Khidmit al-Sugun, Prisons Service, is offered by several Coptic Orthodox churches. Its name might differ from one church to another, but its mission is certain and central: to help Coptic prisoners become good Egyptian citizens and to repent as good Christian believers. The service was founded by Father Salib Matta Sawiris, a Coptic priest in Cairo. Following the release of Pope Shenouda III from his house arrest that started in 1981 just before the assassination of President Anwar Al-Sadat, Coptic laymen and laywomen together with the clergymen started to follow up on the physical and spiritual conditions of Coptic detainees across Egypt.

While the Prisons Service officially started in 1984, the modern and premodern Egyptian history includes stories of priests visiting inmates for spiritual and social support. However, the importance of Khidmit al-Sugun is embedded in its historical moment that reflected a new-old close alliance between the Church’s clerical hierarchy and the concurrent ruling political regime. While there was a close relation between Pope Cyril VI and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the tension between their successors, Pope Shenouda III and Al-Sadat, came at a time of sectarian violence that marginalized Copts from the public sphere. However, a few years following Sadat’s assassination and during Mubarak’s ruling time (1981-2011), historian Paul Sedra notes that the “Church observers detected a profound shift in the Patriarch’s attitude towards the state…his rhetoric developed a conciliatory tone…[and he] proceeded to discourage the protests he had once organized.” 

Registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs (now Ministry of Social Solidarity), the Coptic Prisons Service officially started its work through Egyptian state institutions. Instead of having an incarcerated Pope whose arrest clearly manifested the marginalized status of Egypt’s Copts, the very same religious leader later mobilized his spiritual as well as his political power to support the assumptions that prisons could help “deviant” Egyptians to rehabilitate and integrate in the society. 

A limited carceral theology 

Pope Shenouda’s conciliatory tone does not mean that Copts have not since then been jailed because of their activism against their marginalization. In the last few years, Copts have been sent to jail as a result of protesting against the state in the street and following accusations of blasphemy and of insulting Islam on social media posts. Other Coptic activists were imprisoned for publishing critical work that showcased the community’s deteriorating conditions. Still, the partnership between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state through the Prisons Service is key because it gives access to its khuddam and khadimat (lay male and female practitioners, or servants of khidma) to support prisoners on spiritual and social levels. This partnership is also significant because it manifests the challenges associated with the presence of Coptic rituals and prayers that have to be authorized and watched closely by the very same authorities that marginalize Copts both in and outside jail.

In 2018, I joined the Prisons Service organized by a Coptic Orthodox parish in Cairo. I joined this khidma as part of my doctoral thesis research and in an attempt to support and care about the prisoners. I realized that the Prisons Service has an important methodological function that breaks the divide that separates ‘political’ from ‘criminal’ prisoners. Whereas the former are present in human rights reports that seek to analyze the politics of sectarianism in Egypt, my encounters with Copts who are jailed because of theft, rape, or murder crimes, to name just a few, reflect overlooked aspects of marginalizing the identity and faith of the Coptic prisoners not only by the jailers but also by Muslim co-inmates. 

During our weekly meeting(s) with the inmates (sometimes we would have a service on a Sunday and a Bible study on another day during the same week), we, the khuddam, would make sure to find a meaning for the prisons in the lives of its inhabitants—either as a divine punishment or a test that God offers to His loved ones. We would usually cite the verse from Apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, “Because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as his son.” However, the makhdumin’s (‘the subjects of the service’, in other words, the inmates) haunting comments interrupted the smooth functioning of our teachings: “Does God’s plan [of discipline and punishment] also include this [jailer] who beat me because I am a Christian?” “Does God know about this [co-inmate] who keeps insulting me because of my cross tattoo?” “In the prison, we are punished both because we are thieves and we are Copts.” “Where is God from all the humiliation I get on a daily basis?”

These are just a few comments and inquiries by the makhdumin that prevented my khidma from achieving its desired impact on the lives of the prisoners. The prisons doubted that their cells could get them closer to God or make them better citizens. While prisons are central to the Coptic tradition and theology, Khidmit al-Sugun, which embraces an alliance between the Church and the state, is not able to provide a full explanation of how or if prisons can contribute to the redemption of the prisoners both on earth and in heaven. The Prisons Service is supposed to guarantee that the sites of confinement should merely punish the prisoners because of their deeds and for the sake of their rehabilitation. However, the fact that our teachings are accompanied by physical and verbal sectarian humiliations highlights incomplete promises of salvation that the Prisons Service attempts to curate through a living carceral theology. 


The Bible and other Church-sponsored writings we would share with the inmates are full of anecdotes about miracles and divine apparitions that either released believers through an extraordinary event or supported them to cope with their detention. Nevertheless, how and when these miracles can happen remain open questions by inmates that the khuddam cannot answer. As late Bible and Christian scholar Marvin Meyer writes, “[Virgin] Mary is still in control of the [prisoners’] chains, but the question remains, who is in control of Mary?”

In an attempt to answer Meyer’s story, the prison administration controls not only Mary and her miracles but also the songs, biblical stories, and other written or visual materials that the khuddam would share with the inmates. Before our visits, the wardens would make sure to check the contents of the sermons and the anecdotes we would tell. Moreover, our lessons would not get deep into the repression of despot rulers, even those who belonged to premodern epochs. When a khadim once narrated how the Roman Emperor Diocletian tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of early Christian believers during the second century AD, it turned into a problem when an inmate developed connections between Diocletian and their sectarian Muslim police officer who is in control of the prison. 

In the same vein, the authorities of the prisons that I visited during my khidma did not recognize the heterogeneity of the Christian denominations in Egypt. Some of the prisoners were Catholic and Protestant Christians, who demanded the presence of their priests and pastors. “Are you not all the same?”, wondered an officer who could not comprehend the fact that there are some Christians who do not believe in the sacrament of confession and others who cannot receive the communion from the hands of an Orthodox priest. This is not to mention the other Christian inmates who did not care about any of the denominations. While the unbelieving Coptic prisoners are not obliged to attend any spiritual gathering, they would probably join the khidma to avoid potential problems. Their absence would reveal their ‘atheism,’ and would make them more vulnerable to violence by jailers and prisoners, and so it was safer to join one of the two collective groups (i.e. Muslims and Copts) recognized by a state that controls its citizens’ freedom to (un-)believe.

“Not a martyr”

On May 9, 2021, Wael Saad Tawadros, a monk who was stripped of his ordination by the Coptic Holy Synod, was executed after he was accused of the 2018 killing of Bishop Epiphanius of the monastery of Anba Makkar on the road between Cairo and Alexandria. In a televised sermon, Pope Tawadros II declared that Wael Tawadros was “a criminal and not a martyr.” When asked if Wael Tawadros’ execution could offer him the “crown of martyrdom” like early Christian martyrs, the Pope did not follow the mission of the Prisons Service of caring about and reforming criminals for a better afterlife. In fact, the lawyer of Wael Tawadros noted that he was also stripped of his legal right to confess and to receive the communion before his execution. Moreover, news articles reported that Wael Tawadros was brutally tortured to admit a crime that he did not commit. 

Whether he did it or not, Wael Tawadros’ story manifests the incomplete promises of redemption offered by the Prisons Service. Still, this incompleteness remains an important point of departure to capture broader understandings of the politics of authoritarianism and sectarianism in Egypt. A khidma that functions through an alliance with state authorities will always complicate the exposure of the humiliations its makhdumin encounter.

This analysis is part of a project on Egypts religious minorities made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.


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