How teen convert fled is probed

Associated Press/February 20, 2010

Former Muslim Rifqa Bary, who felt unsafe in her Columbus home, ran away to Florida in July.

A minister accused of driving a teenage runaway to a Columbus bus station last year has retained a lawyer as police say they're investigating whether anyone broke the law in helping the Christian convert leave her Northeast Side home for Florida.

The minister, Brian Williams, is being represented by Michigan lawyer Keith Corbett, the lawyer said yesterday. "We're representing Mr. Williams in the event he's contacted by police authorities ... and asked to provide information," Corbett said.

The Columbus Police Department is investigating "any criminal wrongdoing with anyone involved in getting her from one location to another," Sgt. Rich Weiner said yesterday.

The case has become a rallying point for Christian activists who say that Bary, a 17-year-old who comes from a Muslim family, is a victim of intolerance, and for Muslims who say the girl was exploited by outsiders. Scores of demonstrators siding with the girl rallied outside the Franklin County Courthouse in November.

Bary disappeared from her home in July and was discovered in Orlando, Fla., a few weeks later living with a minister and his wife, whom she had met on Facebook.

The girl alleged that she could be harmed or killed by her parents for converting to Christianity, a charge that her parents, who are immigrants from Sri Lanka, have denied.

Bary was returned to Franklin County after custody hearings in Florida and an investigation by Florida police, who found no credible threats to the girl.

Bary and her parents, Aysha and Mohamed Bary, initially agreed that she would stay in foster care and they all would undergo counseling. The alternative was a trial to determine where the girl should live.

That deal broke down when the Barys alleged that Franklin County Children Services was permitting Rifqa to communicate with Florida pastor Blake Lorenz and his wife.

Attorneys for both Rifqa Bary and her parents are under a gag order and said yesterday they could not comment. A message was left with Williams on Facebook.

No charges have been filed. Williams' lawyer works for the Thomas More Law Center, which frequently represents clients in religious-freedom cases.

An Oct. 15 petition filed in Franklin County Juvenile Court alleged that Williams drove the girl to the Columbus Greyhound station in late July. There, Bary received a bus ticket bought by certain "Christian Associates" whom the teen had met on Facebook, according to the petition filed by Bary's father seeking her return from Florida.

The petition also said that "conspiring adults" had planned locations around the country for the girl to run away to but that Orlando was the primary "Planned Sanctuary."

A former colleague of Lorenz's said in a December affidavit that Lorenz ignored warnings that he was breaking the law when he housed Bary for the two weeks before Florida officials took her into custody.

Brian Smith, a former church administrator, said Lorenz first told him about Bary on July 19 after Lorenz's wife had met the girl on Facebook. The following day, Smith said, Lorenz told him that he and another man had bought Bary a bus ticket under a false name, according to the December affidavit.

Lorenz's attorney Mat Staver has denied Smith's allegations and says Lorenz consulted with a dozen lawyers and a judge and contacted Florida's Department of Children and Families three times while the girl stayed with him.

A message was left yesterday with Staver, who was traveling and could not be immediately reached.

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