“Unjustly imprisoned myself, Joseph’s faith in God was an inspiration to me in my dark time,” he says.
Tharwat was born in Egypt but immigrated to the United States in 1997, where he was joined by the rest of his family.
Soon after his arrival, the teen attended a church conference in Toronto and became a Christian.
One year later, he secured a position with Delta Airlines as a flight attendant.
It was a dream job—“Great pay, I travelled the world and stayed at nice hotels”—but it left Tharwat feeling empty.
“I started to party and tumble into different relationships,” he says. “Then I’d return home, attend church and sing songs of praise. My heart was divided. Many times, I would wake up in the morning and start sobbing.
“I was drifting away from God.”
In August 2001, Tharwat’s flight made a routine landing in Cairo, Egypt. But inexplicably, he was singled out, detained and told he could not leave Egypt without a travel permit.
When a flustered Tharwat and a Delta representative travelled to the government office to obtain the permit, the official took one look at the request and called for two security officers, who placed Tharwat in a holding cell without any contact with the outside world.
“I felt as if I was in a nightmare,” says Tharwat. “This can’t be happening to me, I thought. It’s all a mistake.”
After days of questioning, he was sent to a military court, which sentenced him to one year in prison for evading mandatory military service in Egypt.
“I Felt Like Joseph”
While his family at home in the United States frantically tried to obtain assistance, Tharwat had to adjust to a new reality.
“I realized I was going to be there for a while,” he recalls.
“The first few weeks, I doubted everything, especially God. I was angry at Him! Why would He allow this to happen to me? Is all that I believe false? Maybe there isn’t even a God!”
But soon, he began to notice something.
“Torture and beatings were part of everyday life, but no one ever laid a finger on me,” he says.
“God was telling me, ‘I’m by your side.’ ”
As well, even though Tharwat was the only Christian in the prison, he was allowed his Bible, and he decided to devote himself to reconnecting with God through reflection and prayer.
And as he did, he noticed other things.
“People started approaching me with questions about my religion, my beliefs and Jesus. I was shown favour by prison officials and fellow prisoners. I would even be asked to interpret their dreams and visions. I felt like Joseph!”
From Islam to Christianity
Tharwat was assigned to the administrative wing of the prison, where he worked with a man named Islam, who had been charged with terrorism. In Egyptian military prisons, those incarcerated were held indefinitely with little hope of freedom.
Their first encounter was not auspicious.
“You’re a Christian and I don’t like you,” Islam told Tharwat. “Stay away from me.”
A chastened Tharwat did exactly that, and kept to his corner of the office, where he had his Bible and some books on Christianity.
One day, however, Tharwat noticed Islam with his face in his hands.
Tharwat tentatively approached, put his hand on Islam’s shoulder and gently asked, “What’s wrong?”
Islam opened up to Tharwat, telling him that he was about to become a father but despaired of ever seeing his daughter.
“I tried to comfort him as best I could,” says Tharwat. “I told him she’d grow up with him, and he and his wife would raise their daughter together.”
After a while, Islam looked at Tharwat and said, “You know, I hate Christians—but I like you.”
That broke the ice. Soon, they became friends.
One day toward the end of Tharwat’s sentence, he was passing the visitors’ area when Islam called him over. With him were his mother and wife.
Islam’s mother told Tharwat how much he had helped make her son’s time in prison bearable by giving him hope and encouragement, and thanked him.
“I met an embittered man and left him reading the Bible,” Tharwat says. “I have no doubt that this man became a Christian.”
After nine months, Tharwat’s sentence was reduced for good behaviour.
He was sent to serve out the rest of his enlistment but when the authorities found out that Tharwat’s parents and he himself were American citizens, he was again taken for questioning.
“How did you enlist with a green card?” they demanded.
“You enlisted me!” Tharwat told them.
His file was sent to military intelligence, and he was taken for further questioning. There, he was told his prison term had been a “mistake” because he had emigrated legally.
“All it took was a little paperwork to terminate the end of my time with the Egyptian military,” Tharwat notes.
Though it seemed to him like an eternity, after less than a year, Tharwat found himself back home with his family. The experience made him realize how much God loved and cared for him—“He can reach us in the dark places no one else can”—and it had a profound impact on his faith.
“It was a time when no one could help me, when I lived with criminals who wouldn’t think twice about slitting my throat for the slightest reason,” he says. “But no one lifted a finger to touch me.”
Why? “I believe I was under God’s protection throughout the entire time I was in prison,” Tharwat answers simply. “So I made a decision that I would not live for anyone but God. And I want to live the rest of my life serving Him.”
While Tharwat was at a holding facility before his incarceration, a friend smuggled a Bible to him under a tray of food. Reading through the Book of Psalms, this passage from Psalm 64:10 stayed with him: “The righteous will rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in Him; all the upright in heart will glory in Him!”
“I asked a fellow prisoner who writes verses on papyrus to make one for me,” Tharwat says. “The ‘refuge’ part was huge to me, and I kept asking God, how can someone rejoice in the midst of such a trial? I felt in my heart that those for whom God is their refuge can face anything with joy.”