The Christian Runaway

High-school student Rifqa Bary says her conversion to Christianity threatened her life. Her Muslim parents say they just want their daughter back-no matter what faith she practices.

Newsweek/September 9, 2009

Brian Williams wasn't sure what to make of his young friend's stories. He'd met Rifqa Bary, a high-school student from Gahanna, Ohio, at a prayer house at Ohio State University late last year. Intensely devout and deeply inquisitive, she recounted that she came from a Muslim family but had converted to Christianity. This had enraged her parents, who threatened her with violence, she said. She had to hide her faith, conceal her Bible, and sneak away to attend church. According to Williams, a nondenominational minister, she researched the persecution of Christians around the world obsessively and lived in constant fear that her parents would kill her for apostasy. At first "I didn't believe her, to be honest," says Williams. "Maybe she's just young and overemotional," he thought.

But Bary spoke with such conviction that she eventually convinced Williams. And when she ran away from home and fled to Orlando in July, claiming she was in danger of falling victim to an "honor killing," it seemed like all the more reason to trust that she was telling the truth. Why else would she uproot her life that way? Nevertheless, three separate investigations-two by authorities in Ohio and one by law enforcement in Florida-have found no reason to believe that her allegations are true or her life is imperiled. Her parents vehemently deny all the accusations she has made against them and say they have no issue with her being a Christian. Yet Bary continues to maintain that if she's returned to Ohio, she'll be murdered.

The dispute is now the subject of a rancorous legal battle in Florida family court. It's up to a judge to sort through the facts and determine what's best for Bary, 17, who's living with a foster family in Orlando. But that won't be easy. Her case has spilled far beyond the courtroom walls and escalated into a virulent religious clash. She's being represented by John Stemberger, a conservative Christian lawyer who was involved in the battle over Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman kept alive with a feeding tube until it was disconnected in 2005. He and various right-wing groups have unleashed a barrage of allegations against Bary's parents and a mosque they attend in Columbus, Ohio. Yet as Krista Bartholomew, Bary's guardian ad litem (appointed by the court to offer guidance on the girl's best interests), said in a hearing last Thursday, "This is not a holy war. This is a case about a frightened little girl and a broken family."

Mohamed and Aysha Bary left Sri Lanka in 2000 with their two kids, Rifqa and an older brother, and moved to New York (their third child, a boy, was born in the United States). The reason: concern about Rifqa's well-being. As a child, she'd fallen on a toy airplane that pierced her right eye. Doctors in Sri Lanka wanted to remove the eye, prompting Mohamed to relocate the whole family so Rifqa could obtain better medical treatment. In the end, her eye was spared, though she can't see out of it. Then, in 2004, Mohamed moved the family again, this time to seek a better public education for the kids. He settled on the Columbus area, which had highly ranked schools. At New Albany High School, Rifqa excelled. She maintained a 3.5 grade-point average and became a member of the cheerleading squad. Mohamed "is so proud of his children," says Gary Abbott, his closest friend in the U.S. (and a Christian). "He values them more than his own life."

Soon after arriving in Ohio, Rifqa began exploring Christianity. (Though the Barys raised their kids Muslim, Mohamed says the family didn't attend mosque regularly, due to his travel schedule as a gem dealer.) According to Jamal Jivanjee, a Muslim-to-Christian convert who later befriended Rifqa (and now lives in Nashville), she first learned about Jesus Christ from a girl in junior high who shared Scripture with her. The idea that "you could have a relationship with God was a very attractive concept to her," says Jivanjee. In 2005, Rifqa became a Christian at Korean United Methodist Church in Columbus, according to an affidavit filed by her lawyer. With time, she became more fervent about her beliefs. Williams says she regularly attended prayer groups and participated in pro-life gatherings at abortion clinics. She also connected with fellow believers online, through religious groups like the United States of Prayer on Facebook. "The Internet became her church," says Williams, who calls Bary "by far the most passionate Christian I think I've ever met."

Bary's claims about her parents' hostility to her new religion date back at least a year. In an August 2008 e-mail to Jivanjee, she described her parents as "very devoted Muslims" and wrote that after accepting Jesus at the age of 13, "of course I couldn't tell them. Where would I live and go?" Noting that Jivanjee was also a convert, she asked, "How were you able to handle the persecution?" In her affidavit, Bary contends that her father forced her to attend youth gatherings every Saturday at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin, Ohio (though the center says its records show she attended only three classes there in 2007). Mohamed, a polite, mild-mannered man who seems deeply pained by the acrimony, responds that all this is nonsense. He and his wife learned that Rifqa considered herself a Christian when she was 14, he says, and though they would have preferred she remain Muslim, "we did not make a big fuss about it." Plus, he points out, if they were indeed such fanatics, why would they have let their daughter prance around as a cheerleader?

Mohamed says Rifqa's behavior began to change more markedly at the beginning of this summer. She became withdrawn, barely speaking to him when they drove places together. She rejected the company of her little brother, with whom she'd always been affectionate. She would stay up late, reading her Bible on the balcony. Aysha also found books in the girl's room that she found troubling, like Is the Injeel Corrupted? (Its author, Fouad Masri, believes that "radical Islam is a reflection of a spiritual thirst that can only be quenched through the teachings and the life of Christ," according to one of his press releases.) Moreover, Rifqa was constantly on Facebook, interacting with people her parents had no clue about. "We were worried," says Mohamed.

Rifqa's religious zeal seems to have intensified during this period. She asked Williams, who was licensed at the nondenominational All Nations Church earlier this year, to baptize her, and he agreed. So one afternoon in late June, he says, they held a ceremony at Hoover Dam Recreation Area in Columbus that was attended by a few dozen of her friends and acquaintances. Bary and Williams waded into the lake, and she shared testimony about how she came to know Jesus and prayed that her family would become Christians as well. Then she was immersed.

Around this time, according to Williams, Bary became convinced that she had to prepare to flee. He says she reached out to folks on Facebook and heard back from at least six or seven who volunteered to take her in. The final impetus for her escape apparently came from two episodes she recounts in her affidavit. First, she maintains that her father confronted her about her Christianity. "If you have this Jesus in your heart, you are dead to me!" she says he yelled at her. "I will kill you!" (Mohamed emphatically denies this.) Then, she alleges, her mother discovered a Christian book in her bedroom, burst into tears, and told Rifqa she would "have to be sent back to Sri Lanka to be dealt with." (Mohamed says Aysha reprimanded the girl for coming home late one night and made a comment along the lines of "We came here for your education. If it goes on like this, we'll all have to go back to Sri Lanka.") Around July 17 or 18, Jivanjee received an e-mail from Bary. "The day has come that I dreaded," she wrote. "I'm ready to die for my faith."

Early on the morning of July 19, Bary took off. According to her subsequent account to Williams, she managed to hitch a ride to a church from a woman she didn't know and spent all day praying there. Then someone drove her to a friend's house, and eventually she was taken to a Greyhound station. She boarded a bus, and some 30 hours later, on July 22, she arrived in Orlando, where Blake and Beverly Lorenz live. Though Bary had never met the couple-both pastors of the evangelical Global Revolution Church-Beverly was one of the people she had communicated with on Facebook. (The Lorenzes declined an interview request.)

Bary's parents, who knew none of this, became frantic when they discovered their daughter was gone. They filed a missing-persons report with Columbus police and reached out to everyone they could think of. Police say the Barys cooperated fully with their investigation and seemed like loving parents who were worried sick. Searching among Rifqa's personal items, the Barys found a flash drive filled with spiritual writings by Williams. He'd already spoken to the family and told them he didn't know where Rifqa was. But on Aug. 5-more than two weeks after the girl went missing-Columbus police interviewed him by phone (he was now living in Kansas City, Mo.). He says they threatened to arrest him if Bary didn't appear in the next 24 hours. Immediately after that call, he says, Kansas City police went to his home looking for the girl. Alarmed, Williams says he called and e-mailed all the people he knew Bary had been in touch with, including Blake Lorenz, who's a Facebook friend of his.

The Lorenzes had been housing Bary the whole time, even though it's a misdemeanor in Florida to shelter an unmarried minor for more than 24 hours (the Florida Department of Law Enforcement won't say whether it's investigating the couple). Their attorney, Mat Staver, says they consulted various agencies and nonprofits regarding how to handle Bary's situation. They also called the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) several times, though they didn't provide the specifics of her case until Aug. 6 (the day after Williams contacted Blake Lorenz). On Aug. 7, Orlando police picked up Bary, and soon she was in DCF custody. In a procedural error, however, the agency allowed the girl to return to the Lorenz home for three days before moving her to a licensed foster family. During that time, the couple allowed a local TV news crew to tape an interview with Bary that soon appeared on YouTube. Distraught and at times hysterical, the girl alleged that her parents had threatened to commit an honor killing against her. "If they love God more than me, they have to do this," she said. "I'm fighting for my life." (Muslim scholars say that in Islam, there's no such thing as an honor killing for apostasy.)

Once Bary's case became public, numerous Christian conservatives fanned the flames. "This conflict between Islam and Christianity is going to grow greater," said Blake Lorenz, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "This conflict between good and evil is going to grow greater." Stemberger, Bary's lawyer, filed a 33-page memorandum in her case that's filled with innuendo and provocative allegations against the Noor Center, the mosque that the Barys occasionally attend (on a conference call with reporters, Stemberger insisted that the accusations have been "documented extensively"). Among them: that the center is connected to an FBI terror probe (which the FBI denies) and that its CEO has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (which, along with every other allegation, the Noor Center denies). The mosque is actually regarded as mainstream and regularly hosts interfaith events. "Unfortunately, hate groups appear to be using this family matter as an opportunity to attack the Muslim community and Islamic organizations in order to further their religious and political goals," the center said in a statement.

The court proceedings have been no less combative. At an arraignment last week, the Barys formally denied the allegations made against them. During the proceedings, eight attorneys representing various parties-Rifqa, her parents, and DCF among them-clashed repeatedly, prompting Rifqa to cry at one point. The judge overseeing the case, Daniel Dawson, has ordered the parties into mediation, but it's clear that is unlikely to get anywhere. As a result, the case will probably go to trial (a pretrial hearing is scheduled for Sept. 29), leaving it up to Dawson to decide whether Rifqa will remain in Florida-which she says she wants-or be reunited with her parents. The Barys have volunteered to participate in family counseling with Franklin County Children Services in Ohio, and they agreed to let Rifqa stay with a foster family there in the meantime. But for now, the state of Florida has custody of her. "It's very hard for us to believe that it has gone so far," says Mohamed. "We love her; we want her to come back. She can be a Christian, that's not a problem."

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