Couple who took in Muslim teen who converted to Christianity say they have no regrets

The Orlando Sentinel/September 2, 2009

It started with a middle-of-the-night phone call.

Beverly Lorenz wanted to go to bed. But when a fearful teenager she barely knew - a girl she met through the Internet social-networking site Facebook, living 1,000 miles away - asked if they could talk, Lorenz agreed.

That mid-July phone call led to a 30-hour Greyhound bus trip and cultural and spiritual debates over the fate of one girl: Fathima Rifqa Bary.

And it thrust Beverly and husband Blake Lorenz, pastors who have served in Central Florida for more than 25 years, into unfamiliar roles.

They've been accused of kidnapping Rifqa from her Muslim parents. They've been accused of brain-washing Rifqa. Now they're concerned for their own lives.

"We weren't trying to be secret or hidden," Beverly Lorenz said. "We were trying to help her to the best of our ability."

The accusations made against them, Blake Lorenz said, aren't true. And they're not anti-Muslim.

"I'm pro Jesus," he said. "And Jesus tells us to love everybody. I do my best to try to do that. And we're praying for her parents and for healing and reconciliation."

On July 19, Rifqa ran away from her home in Westerville, Ohio, boarding a bus bound for Orlando - and the Lorenzes' home - with a ticket paid for by somebody else. The teen, who had converted from Islam to Christianity four years earlier, told Beverly she feared for her life.

The Lorenzes took her in. The pastors said they quizzed her about her life and family.

Beverly Lorenz, a former teacher, said it was clear to them that Rifqa was telling the truth. She wasn't a drama queen - or a teen feuding with her parents. If that were the case, Blake Lorenz said, they would have sent her back to Ohio.

"She really believed that her dad would kill her and the Muslim community would kill her. She believed that with all of her heart. She was terrified of going back to Ohio," he said.

Rifqa's parents, Mohamed and Aysha Bary, have denied any intention to harm their daughter.

Asked why they were willing to take Rifqa in, Lorenz said, "We really believed it was the Holy Spirit leading us. We prayed about it. We sought legal counsel. We didn't do anything without legal counsel because we didn't want to break any laws."

After Rifqa arrived, the Lorenzes said they called 11 lawyers, a judge and Catholic Charities. Each had different advice. No one knew what to do with Rifqa.

Local lawyer Mat Staver, a longtime friend of the Lorenzes who has offered the couple advice, said they have been put into an odd situation.

"They're in a Catch-22," said Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Council, a conservative legal advocacy group. "They were put in a situation that they've never been in before. Do I not open my door, do I open my door?"

Rifqa lived with them for more than two weeks before a judge determined she needed to be in a foster home until the courts could decide what authorities - Florida or Ohio - has jurisdiction.

Blake Lorenz, 53, was a pastor at Pine Castle United Methodist Church for 16 years before retiring last year. In October, he and Beverly started Global Revolution Church.

Beverly Lorenz, 51, is a third-generation pastor, following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. The couple has three adult children.

It was through a Facebook prayer group that Beverly first "met" Rifqa. One night in July while Beverly was up praying, Rifqa asked if they could speak on the phone.

Exactly what was said on that call is unclear. Lorenz said Rifqa was "panic-stricken."

"Most of the conversation I spent praying over her and trying to calm her down," Beverly said in an e-mail. "I cannot remember if she mentioned running away since my focus was on calming her down and praying that she would have courage when her father came home."

After the call, someone bought Rifqa a bus ticket to Orlando. "It wasn't us," Blake Lorenz said.

Rifqa left her home July 19.

"My understanding was, well, here's a bus ticket if you want to pick it up you can come to Florida," he said. "So we didn't know if she would or not."

The pastor won't say who bought Rifqa's ticket. He is trying to protect the person or persons because, he said, they are fearful of radical groups who may try to harm them because they helped Bary.

In the late hours of July 21 or early morning of July 22, a friend of the Lorenzes picked Bary up from the bus station and took her to the pastors' home.

A member of the Lorenz family alerted some Central Florida media outlets about an Aug. 10 hearing. It was Rifqa's 17th birthday, and she was afraid she'd get sent back to Ohio.

In court, Rifqa sat next to Blake Lorenz. He had his arm around the petite girl, who seemed frightened.

Almost immediately after the hearing, with Rifqa in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Lorenzes left for a planned, two-week vacation in the Caribbean. Since that first public hearing, they said they've been misquoted, falsely accused and portrayed as extremists - or as running a cult.

One Florida statute says people cannot shelter an unmarried minor for more than 24 hours without the consent of their parent or guardian, or without notifying a law enforcement officer of the child's name. A violation of that law is a misdemeanor.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman said the agency's investigation into alleged threats against Rifqa is ongoing. It will present findings to a judge on Thursday. Asked if the Lorenzes are part of their investigation, the FDLE spokeswoman wouldn't comment.

The Lorenzes are not being investigated by DCF or Orlando police, representatives for both agencies said.

Meanwhile, Rifqa's parents are the subject of a FDLE investigation. Mohamed Bary told the Orlando Sentinel he welcomed his FDLE interview, which happened last week.

Rifqa's pro-bono lawyer, conservative Christian activist John Stemberger, said the teen is in the foster system, feels safe and wants to remain in Florida.

"She's doing remarkably well under the circumstances," he said. "She has hope for the future even though she realizes it's a challenging road ahead of her."

Blake Lorenz said he has no regrets.

"We just want what's best for Rifqa," he said. "We feel we did what anyone would do. Someone was crying out for their life to be protected and we tried to do just that - help her."

During another hearing in Orlando, on Aug. 21, Rifqa's parents appeared with their lawyers and asked that their daughter be sent back to Ohio, where they agreed to let her live in a foster home. That's when a judge also ordered FDLE to investigate if Rifqa's family or other Muslims in their Ohio community are a threat.

On Sunday, a day after returning from the islands, the Lorenzes again stood before their congregation. About 100 people gathered at Global Revolution Church at its home inside a theater at Cinemark at Festival Bay.

They were there to hear Blake Lorenz preach on the Covenant. Worshippers were led by a band with several guitarists, a drummer and other musicians, and even held a brief promotion ceremony for children.

Blake Lorenz said vacation was nice but that he and Beverly felt isolated.

That afternoon, Blake Lorenz said it never entered their minds to turn Rifqa away.

"The Bible says take in the stranger, take in the foreigner," he said, "and she certainly fit all those descriptions."

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