Florida has a knack for turning family dysfunction into national spectacle. Ten years ago it gave us the Elian Gonzalez mess; five years later came the Terri Schiavo debacle. Now we have a new domestic dispute that threatens to become another culture-war circus, complete with a clash-of-religions angle to boot: the battle for Rifqa Bary, a 17-year-old girl from Columbus, Ohio, who ran away to an Evangelical church in Orlando, Fla., because, she claims, her Sri Lankan Muslim family has threatened to kill her for recently converting to Christianity.
The saga began in mid-July when Rifqa, after a dispute with her parents, bolted from her home and rode a bus to Orlando. There she took refuge with the Rev. Blake Lorenz, the pastor of a conservative Christian congregation, the Global Revolution Church, and his wife Beverly, whom the cheerleader and honor student had met on Facebook. Almost three weeks later, on Aug. 6, the Lorenzes finally let authorities and Rifqa's frantic parents know the girl was with them. Then, a few days later, Rifqa dropped a bombshell to an Orlando television station: she had run away, she claimed, because her family, angry about her conversion to Christianity, had "threatened to kill me." (Read "What's Holding Back Arab Women?")
Wearing a white dress and a silver cross, her dark hair often falling over her scared eyes, the small and slender Rifqa insisted in the TV interview (now on YouTube) that her father Mohamed Bary, a Columbus jeweler, "said he would kill me or send me back to Sri Lanka," where she said "they have asylums where they put people like me." She said her death would be a Muslim "honor killing," the kind of murder that women in deeply conservative Muslim societies are sometimes victims of when they're deemed to have shamed their families. (The U.N. Population Fund estimates that there are as many as 5,000 worldwide honor killings every year.) Rifqa said that her father, upon discovering her Facebook profile and its declarations of her Christian faith, told her, "If you have this Jesus in your heart, you're dead to me, you're not my daughter." She added, almost hysterically, "They have to kill me ... I want to worship Jesus freely. I don't want to die!"
It's a serious charge that any law-enforcement or social-services official would have to look into, particularly since there have in fact been some extremely rare instances of honor killings in the U.S. Most recently two Dallas-area sisters were murdered last year, allegedly by their Egyptian-born Muslim father, who relatives say was enraged that his daughters, 18 and 17 years old, were dating non-Muslim boys. (The father is still at large and is believed to have fled the country.) But Mohamed Bary and his wife Aysha adamantly insist it is "completely false" that they ever threatened to kill Rifqa over her conversion. "We love her; we want her back. She is free to practice her religion, whatever she believes in. That's O.K.," Mohamed told the Associated Press last week.
Columbus police tell TIME they're watching the case closely and are in contact with the courts and social-services agencies in Ohio and Florida; so far they have found no evidence or other information to support Rifqa's accusation. Craig McCarthy, one of two Orlando attorneys appointed to represent the Barys in Florida, says that while they may have been dismayed at first by Rifqa's conversion, as devout parents of any faith would be, they are hardly the kind of fundamentalist Muslims who would declare a medieval fatwa, or death sentence, on their daughter. "There is a vast, vast difference between not being pleased that your child has not chosen your faith and wanting to kill your child," says McCarthy. "This is a family with Westernized kids. Their daughter is a cheerleader."
If Rifqa's claims are indeed false, that raises the question of whether she may have been prodded by her new friends at Global Revolution Church to make the death-threat accusations, and whether she was somehow lured to Orlando by the Lorenzes via the Internet. The couple, who could not be reached for comment, have denied it to the media. But Beverly Lorenz has acknowledged that she talked by phone with Rifqa before the girl ran away. Blake Lorenz, who insists that Rifqa will be killed if she goes home, earlier this month made clear to reporters his Crusades-era belief that this is part of Christianity's holy struggle against Islam: "These are the last days; these are the end times," he said, "and this conflict between Islam and Christianity is going to grow greater. This conflict between good and evil is going to grow greater."
As a result, says McCarthy, "you wonder if people have been stoking this fear in her head, telling her, 'This is what the Koran says will happen to you.' " The Orlando lawyer who claims to represent Rifqa, conservative activist John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council (which fought in 2005 to keep Terri Schiavo on life support), last week wrote in a petition to keep the girl in Florida that she "is in imminent threat of harm from the extreme radical Muslim community in her hometown of Columbus." He warned that one of the world's largest "cells of al-Qaeda operatives" once worked from a Columbus mosque the Barys have attended. He bases these sweeping claims on the fact that Salah Sultan, a controversial Islamic scholar who denies that Arab terrorists committed the 9/11 attacks, once had ties to the city's Muslim community. Stemberger tells TIME he plans to introduce more specific evidence in the coming days. "There are many peaceful, law-abiding Muslims in this country, and they should be embraced, so this is not about Christianity vs. Islam," says Stemberger. "It's about what's in the best interests of Rifqa Bary, whether the threat to her in this particular community is real and she could end up disappearing in the night there. Normally I would be an advocate for parental rights, but not in this case." (Read a TIME article on honor killings.)
After its probe of the situation this month, Florida's Department of Children and Family Services took Rifqa from the Lorenzes and placed her in foster care. At a hearing in Orlando on Aug. 21, a judge ruled that she could remain in Florida until he decides, probably at a later hearing slated for Sept. 3, where she should ultimately go. (McCarthy says the Barys were willing to let Rifqa be placed in Ohio foster care while the case is adjudicated.)
Not surprisingly, Rifqa is turning into a cause célèbre. Conservative websites often accused of anti-Muslim agendas, such as the Jawa Report, Atlas Shrugs and WorldNetDaily, have been lighting up over the Rifqa fight. No doubt conservative and anti-U.S. Muslims will eventually step into the media frenzy. And politicians have already started weighing in. Florida's moderate Republican governor and U.S. Senate candidate, Charlie Crist, who needs conservative voters to win his state's closed GOP primary next year, issued a statement on Aug. 21 saying he's "grateful to Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson for his decision to grant [Rifqa] the right to remain in Florida ... We will continue to fight to protect Rifqa's safety and well-being as we move forward." Of course, Crist's conservative primary opponent, former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio, released his own communiqué: "Florida not only has a responsibility to protect [Rifqa's] innocent life, but also to defend her sacred right to worship freely." True enough. But despite the heated rhetoric once again fueling a Florida fracas, it's not at all clear that Rifqa Bary's rights are in danger.