Teen Feared Death After Change From Islam to Christianity

By Amy Green
Religion News Service
Saturday, October 17, 2009

ORLANDO -- First there was Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy torn between two nations. Then there was Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman torn between two families. Now comes Rifqa Bary, the teenage runaway torn between two faiths.

If you're involved in a high-stakes custody fight, Florida, it seems, is the place to be.

Could Rifqa's father in Ohio really kill her for leaving Islam to embrace Christianity? Has the 17-year-old read too many fundamentalist Christian Web sites? Or is it all just teen dramatics?

Those are the questions swirling around the 17-year-old Ohio girl who became a Christian several years ago and sought shelter with an Orlando pastor after she feared for her life because, as she said, her father is bound by his Islamic faith to kill her.

Her parents deny the charges, and are fighting in courts in both states to bring Rifqa home. The case has become a cause celebre among conservative Christian groups, Muslim activists and, of course, politicians.

Gov. Charlie Crist (R) said, "The first and only priority of my administration is the safety and well-being of this child." Marco Rubio, Crist's opponent in a GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat, also urged state leaders "to use every legal tool at their disposal to properly evaluate Rifqa's best interests."

"The case in Florida began as a television event," said Craig McCarthy, a former attorney for Rifqa's mother in Orlando. "It could have been dismissed on Day One." As courts in Orlando and Columbus, Ohio, wrestle over which state has jurisdiction, Rifqa remains in Orlando in foster care. On Tuesday, an Orlando judge ruled Rifqa should return to Ohio, although no timeline was set, and when she does return she will remain in foster care.

The girl arrived in Orlando after connecting with the wife of an Orlando pastor on Facebook. The pastor and his wife took Rifqa in after "they realized that she was someone who really believed her life was in danger," said Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando firm specializing in religious litigation. Staver represents the pastor and his wife, Blake and Beverly Lorenz. The teen was placed with a different foster family after the couple contacted authorities.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found no evidence of any threat or abuse against Rifqa and said her allegations are "based on her belief or understanding of the Islamic faith and/or Islamic law and custom. [Rifqa] stated that she believes Islamic law dictates she must be put to death for her abandonment of the Islamic faith." Her father, Mohamed Bary, denied making any such threat, according to the report, but he told investigators that when he confronted Rifqa about her conversion in June he lifted a laptop to throw it but reconsidered, thinking about how much money he had spent on it.

The case has put Muslim groups on the defensive. Islam condones no such killings, said Babak Darvish, executive director of the Columbus chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Darvish said the girl's parents are distraught about her behavior. They moved to the United States from Sri Lanka when Rifqa was a child so that she could receive better treatment for an injury that left her blind in one eye, he said.

Darvish accused some conservative Christians and politicians of using the story to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment. "They're trying to use this case to further this extremist political, religious agenda," he said.

Lou Engle, an outspoken Kansas City, Mo., evangelist who has taken up Rifqa's case, said, "If Florida authorities release her to her parents, who she alleges threatened her for converting, we don't know what will happen to her and we should not risk it. While we hate to see any child leave the care of their parents, these conditions are unacceptable."

For some, Rifqa personifies lingering Christian-Muslim tensions more than eight years after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In late September, as more than 3,500 Muslims prepared to gather for Friday prayers at the U.S. Capitol, Rifqa was featured as part of a national call-in prayer-a-thon.

Engle, who helped organize the call, referred to Rifqa as "our little sister," and during it, Rifqa grew emotional when asked to pray for Muslims to embrace Christianity.

In her few public appearances, Rifqa has been at times emotional, impassioned, giddy and, occasionally, incoherent. In a YouTube video during which she shared her testimony, Rifqa called her parents "radical, radical Muslims," adding, "They can't know of my faith because if they do know, the consequences are really harsh. Just the culture and the background that they come from is so hostile toward Christianity." She explained that a classmate introduced her to Christianity, and then grew emotional as she described the moment she became a Christian, during an altar call at church.

"The Lord completely wraps me in his arms of love, and I break down on the floor and weep," she said. "I felt nothing but love, nothing but this great radical love." An attorney for Rifqa did not return calls seeking comment; staff members cited a court-imposed gag order. Staver said the threat against Rifqa is real and that Muslims, not Christians, have turned the story into another televised courtroom circus.

McCarthy, the Orlando attorney who represented Rifqa's mother, was ambivalent about those who have taken up Rifqa's cause.

"It is not a unanimously held belief that these people are orthodox Christians, which to me is a double tragedy for Rifqa, because if she wants to be a Christian, that's fantastic," McCarthy said. "I don't think she's necessarily being taught the faith in a healthy way."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company