Religious debate will outlive woes of runaway convert

The Columbus Dispatch/August 10, 2010

A year ago today, Rifqa Bary spent her 17th birthday in foster care in Florida, hundreds of miles from her parents.

Today, she is expected to spend part of her 18th birthday with her parents - not for cake and gifts but for a court hearing.

Some things haven't changed much since Rifqa ran away from her Northeast Side home nearly 13 months ago.

Rifqa says she is still afraid of her parents and doesn't want to live with them. Mohamed and Aysha Bary continue to deny her accusations that they would kill her for converting to Christianity from Islam and, in fact, have not been charged with a crime.

The case, which attracted national attention, is to conclude today in Franklin County Juvenile Court, where Franklin County Children Services is expected to give up custody of Rifqa because she is now an adult.

What makes the 18th birthday different from the 17th is the circus that happened in between. The family drama has become symbolic of a national debate about religion, particularly the ability of evangelical Christians and Muslims to coexist in a post-Sept. 11 America.

Conservative activists made Rifqa the poster girl in the fight against what they consider the dangerous, violent nature of Islam. They spoke of the case in terms of religious liberty and personal freedom.

Casual observers wondered whether killing wayward children was "OK" in Islam. Muslims asserted that Islam does not allow parents to kill their children and that the Quran forbids compulsion in religion. Mohamed Bary said overzealous Christians brainwashed his daughter.

The Barys told their story on local TV as well as on Good Morning America and CNN before a gag order silenced everyone involved in the case. Conservative interest groups troubled by Islam took up Rifqa's cause and staged rallies to coincide with court hearings.

"Clearly, this isn't about this particular girl and the facts of the case," said Ingrid Mattson, director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Hartford is a Christian institution; Mattson is a Muslim.

"She's being used as a symbol for people who have pre-existing hatred against Muslims."

When a family situation becomes a symbol for a broader conflict, the real people involved - Rifqa and her family - become victims, Mattson said.

The popular reaction would have been much different if Rifqa had been raised Christian and converted to Islam, then had run away to live with Muslims, said Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion at Ohio State University. When Rifqa first arrived in Florida, she lived with a pair of Christian pastors she had met on Facebook.

People would have been more skeptical of her allegations, Erzen said, and wouldn't have been so quick to demonize Christianity.

The Christian adults who helped Rifqa run away to Florida had extreme views, just as some Muslims have a radical interpretation of Islam, Erzen said. But neither group is representative of the wider faiths, she said

Rifqa's backers view the case through a different lens.

Rifqa "represents a symbol of freedom for young Muslims around the world who are in her same situation ... and in many countries can be persecuted or killed for leaving the faith," said John Stemberger, a Florida lawyer who represented Rifqa and a frequent advocate for conservative Christian causes.

"She represents a symbol of hope for potentially hundreds of thousands of young people around the world who want to leave Islam."

Most Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, he said, because they view the faith "culturally" and don't believe that Islamic law must be imposed on the world. Still, he said, the radical minority forces the question of "Can Islam exist in our country peacefully and be productive and not engage in a radical tone which is going to be counterproductive to the security of the country?"

Rifqa's story won't remain unusual as Islam spreads, said Jamal Jivanjee, a Christian pastor who grew up a Muslim in Columbus. Jivanjee, who moved his ministry to Orlando after traveling there for Rifqa's case, said Rifqa's attorneys prohibited him from having contact with her while the case was pending. His friendship with Rifqa began with conversation about their mutual conversions.

"She's a prototype, in many ways, for what's going to occur," he said.

Mattson said she hopes that Rifqa, with her newfound legal autonomy, can find a good counselor who will help her detach from the interest groups.

That way, she can "just have the space to figure out where she needs to go in her life," Mattson said. "That's really what it should be about."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.