August 28, 2009
A 17-year-old Ohio girl who secretly converted from Islam to Christianity says she fled to Florida for fear of her life. Fathima Rifqa Bary, the teen runaway who goes by Rifqa, is in protective custody with Florida's Department of Children and Families.
Rifqa says her father threatened her life when he learned of her conversion to Christianity vowing to kill her in the long standing Islamic tradition of "honor killings."
A judge ruled in the teen's favor August 21 , allowing time to investigate her case. Although her family, who is from Sri Lanka, say they will allow her to practice her Christian faith unharmed, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating whether she is in danger if she returns home.
"I was threatened by my dad," Rifqa told media. "I had a laptop, and he took that laptop and waved it in the air and he was about to beat me with it, and he said, ‘If you have this Jesus in your heart, you're dead to me. You're not my daughter.' And I refused to speak but he said, ‘I will kill you. Tell me the truth.' So I knew that I had to get away."
Alan Kornman, with the Orlando chapter ACT for America, a group who says it opposes what they call authoritarian values of Islam fascism, says many fear the secular media isn't taking seriously the issues at play.
"It is almost like Rifqa is on trail," said Kornman. "The secular media has been very hostile towards her and irresponsible in its reporting."
John Stemberger, an Orlando attorney representing the teen, told Crosswalk.com, "There is a strong media bias against this case. Outlets like CNN are choosing to completely ignore the case, while others are covering the story as if Rifqa was wrong for following her Christian convictions."
Rifqa's claim certainly has a basis in current events. The U.N. Population Fund estimates that there are as many as 5,000 honor killings worldwide every year. These "honor killings," in which the victims are usually women, serve both to "cleanse" the social or spiritual stain of the victim, and to warn others who might be tempted to breach that same code of conduct.
"In 150 years in my family no one has known Jesus - I am the first one. Imagine the honor in killing me," said Rifqa in video interview now posted on YouTube.
Mohamed Bary and his wife, Aysha, deny their daughter's allegations. "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.
"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 Craig McCarthy, one of two Orlando attorneys appointed to represent the Barys.
But the Barys' actions lend some credibility to Rifqa's claims. Her father reportedly dissolved his jewelry business on July 29 after he discovered her faith, making conservative pundits like Pamela Geller speculate that the family was preparing to return to Sri Lanka. Since then, the girl's parents have signed affidavits declaring themselves indigent despite the successful business. As a result, the Florida court appointed taxpayer-funded attorneys for both the father and the mother.
"I am sure the industrious Barys will claim poverty so expect the inevitable denials," said Geller on her blog. "But clearly it calls into question their honesty, their character and the lengths they will go to."
Dr. W. L. Cati, an American woman who married a Muslim man and later converted to Islam, knows firsthand the challenges Rifqa may face.
After years of abuse and mind control, the former Miss Alabama and Mrs. Alabama says she divorced her Syrian-born husband who had ties to the militant group, Hezbollah. After reclaiming her faith in Christ, she started White Horse Ministry in Bradenton, Fla., where she now assists women and children trying to leave the Islamic religion.
Cati, author of "Married to Muhammad," says that in the Islamic tradition, one who leaves the faith is considered an "apostate." Many religious groups use Sharia Law to punish apostates. Apostates may be shunned by the members of the former religious group or worse. Cati fears the same for Rifqa.
"I have been talking with Governor Crist's office and I pray that he understand the ramifications of his decisions," said Cati. "Rifqa's fears are legitimate."
The New Albany High School cheerleader disappeared on July 19, prompting fears that she had been abducted. In fact, Rifqa took a bus to Orlando to meet with husband and wife pastors Blake and Beverly Lorenz, who she met through a Facebook prayer group for the couple's non-denominational Global Revolution Church.
Rifqa's father and his supporters claim his daughter was "brainwashed" by a cult led by Lorenz, who did not return phone calls to comment about such reports. Before founding Global Outreach Church, Lorenz was a pitcher in the minor leagues for the Chicago Cubs and served as a pastor in the United Methodist denomination. Matt Staver of the Liberty Council represents Lorenz and his wife.
Rifqa's family also attends the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Hilliard, Ohio, where radical cleric Salah Sultan worked as the resident scholar, according to Geller and others. Sultan, an internationally renowned Islamic sheikh previously living in Hilliard, was recorded in 2008 on Egyptian Al-Nas TV preaching Jewish hatred and proclaiming conspiracy theories. In his interview, Sultan warns of the forthcoming destruction and deaths of Americans, vowing that soon more Americans will be killed than Palestinians in Gaza.
Stemberger says Rifqa is a strong young woman and her story shows how Christ can transform someone's life. In spite of being isolated and in protective custody, he says the teen is doing well.
"It is unbelievable that there is a faith that would advocate honor killings," said Stemberger. "Rifqa is in a safe environment and looking at taking classes through a virtual online school in Florida."
Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson is expected to hear the case September 3 to determine whether Rifqa stays in Florida or returns to her parents in New Albany, Ohio.
Russ Jones is co-publisher of the award winning Christian Press newspaper (ChristianPress.com) and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter and freelance reporter for CBN he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. He is also president of the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers and member of the Evangelical Press Association. He may be reached at [email protected].