Girl brainwashed, parents say

Her Islamic family says she is free to be a Christian

Associated Press/August 14, 2009

Fathima Rifqa Bary, 17, of Columbus, told a Florida TV station her family would kill her for converting.

The parents of a 17-year-old Columbus girl who ran away from her Northeast Side home to Florida dismiss her claim that she fears they will harm her for converting from Islam to Christianity.

Her parents say that Fathima Rifqa Bary was brainwashed, and they also question how she ended up in the home of a Florida family she met through an online prayer group.

Authorities are trying to determine whether the girl, a New Albany High School cheerleader who goes by Rifqa, should stay in state foster care in Florida or be returned to her family.

"We love her, we want her back, she is free to practice her religion, whatever she believes in, that's OK," her father, Mohamed Bary, said yesterday.

"What these people are trying to do is not right -- I don't think any religion will teach to separate the kids from their parents," he said.

Police investigating the girl's July 19 disappearance used phone and computer records to track her to the Rev. Blake Lorenz, pastor of the Orlando, Fla.-based Global Revolution Church, who called authorities Aug. 6 to say she was staying with his family.

With Lorenz holding his arm tightly around her, Rifqa told WFTV-TV in Florida on Monday that she would be killed if she came home.

"They love God more than me; they have to do this," she said. "I'm fighting for my life. You guys don't understand."

Lorenz did not return a phone call to the AP seeking comment.

On Monday, an Orlando judge ordered the girl into the custody of Florida's Department of Children and Families until another hearing next week.

The family is originally from Sri Lanka and came to the U.S. in 2000 to seek medical help for Rifqa, who had lost sight in her right eye when she fell and struck a toy airplane on a couch at home.

Rifqa, a high-school junior, had been questioning her faith for several months, her father said. She attended one church with friends from school and later attended services at another church, Xenos Christian Fellowship, a megachurch that emphasizes small groups meeting at home.

The church has no record of her being a member but says it's possible, given that the church has nearly 5,000 members, said spokesman Jay Reilly.

After Rifqa proselytized with a Bible at school, Mohamed Bary said, her family asked her to stop because it wasn't an appropriate activity in school. They also told her she had an obligation to study her original faith first, before choosing another.

But Mohamed Bary said that they never threatened to kill or harm the girl. "She is still my daughter," said Bary, 47, a jeweler.

Columbus police also question the girl's claim of being in danger.

Mohamed Bary "comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter," said Sgt. Jerry Cupp, chief of the Columbus police missing-persons bureau.

The family said Rifqa was baptized a Christian without their knowledge this year in Columbus. Around the same time, the girl met Lorenz through an online Facebook prayer group.

Rifqa's 18-year-old brother, Rilvan, said the family worries about her well-being. "We don't think the safest person is the pastor she met two weeks ago on Facebook," he said.

Rifqa ran away without explanation or a note. She told WFTV that she hitchhiked to the Columbus bus station, then took a bus to Orlando.

Her parents dispute that and say she must have had help because hitchhiking from her home near the northeastern edge of the city would be nearly impossible and she didn't have enough money for the trip to Florida.

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