Parents of US teen convert brace for tough fight

Sameen Khan | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2009-09-21 03:00

COLUMBUS, Ohio: Fathima Rifqa Bary, 17, who created one of the most controversial national news stories in the United States by converting to Christianity, continues to make ripples in the media. Her parents, who were ordinary people, suddenly became famous. Their faces are plastered on all the news channels.

Normal life, as they knew it, has come to a complete halt. They are tense when answering phone calls, lest the callers greet them with a barrage of profanities or threats. They have received hate mails and warnings. “If anything happens to the girl, you will be killed.”

All this because of Rifqa. She converted to Christianity and ran away from home, saying her father had threatened to kill her.

Arab News spoke to Mohammad Bary and Aysha Bary, Rifqa’s parents in their apartment.

Soft-spoken and polite, the Barys talked with anguish, forcing back tears, always trying to be positive and hopeful.

“We are really suffering, mentally and emotionally,” Bary said. “I could never imagine something like this could happen to us, that our daughter would leave us and run away. We couldn’t eat or sleep for weeks. Even my brothers and sisters in Galle, Sri Lanka, are very, very disturbed. They cannot believe such a thing could be possible in the US.”

“We miss her so much; my family is incomplete without her. I wish she would come back,” said Aysha. “Even (six-year-old) Rajaa keeps asking me every day, when my sister will come back.” Aysha then showed something that Rifqa had written while in sixth grade in a schoolbook, perhaps remnants of happier times: “My family is very precious to me, and should be to everyone else. My family always encourages me to pursue my dreams and goals in life, especially my parents. Even though we may not agree on everything, it’s nice to know you belong somewhere.”

“We were such a normal, happy family before all this. We went out on picnics. Rifqa was full of life. She wanted to be a doctor, wanted to go to the best college,” Mohammad said with deep sorrow in his eyes. What made Rifqa convert to Christianity — and at this tender age?

“Rifqa is a very active kind of a person. She wanted to be involved in helping people, she wanted to go to Africa. She had some Christian friends who took her to their Korean church where she got involved with youth activities. She met missionaries who preached to her. We didn’t know about it at the time. Partly it was my own fault, I did not teach her about Islam as I should have. I was always traveling and out of town on business trips,” Mohammad added.

Why would Rifqa leave home now at 17 when she is just one year away from becoming an adult. Why would she leave if all were well? Did Mohammad say in anger, even figuratively, that he would kill her? “No, I never said I would kill her, even in anger. That is a word she used frequently in her conversations. If she was late for cheer-leading practice, she would say, ‘Dad my coach will kill me.’ This is a simple case of kidnapping.”

Mohammad said Rifqa left because she was brainwashed and manipulated by proselytizing evangelicals. “She is very gullible. I believe there were lots of people involved in her disappearance. They coerced her. She is a minor and has no consent. It is also against the federal law for a minor to cross the (Ohio) state borders. Whoever helped Rifqa has committed a crime. And the couple (Pastor Blake and Beverly Lorenz) who kept her secretly for two and half weeks in their Orlando home have also committed a crime.

“According to Florida law, anyone who has kept a minor for over 24 hours can go to jail for a year at least. We have just filed a complaint with the police about that.” (Note: The court investigations have revealed that Rifqa was helped by Pastor Brian Williams to get to the Greyhound bus station. Her claims of hitch hiking were false.)

Mohammad said he had some idea of his daughter’s interest in Christianity. That she was calling herself a Christian on babysitting flyers, in school, on Facebook. But four months ago, things began to change. She no longer hung around with friends of her own age.

She spent time with people who were all over 21 and her behavior changed too. Always on Facebook, she would sleep around 7.30 in the morning. (Her school was closed for summer holidays).

“She almost stopped talking to us. She would go out and never tell us where she was going. If her mother asked her anything, she said almost arrogantly that it was her life and she could do what she wanted. We were really concerned for her safety; because she is a minor, we didn’t want her to meet those older people in case she got into trouble,” Mohammad said.

Around this time a friend of Mohammad logged on to Facebook as a teenager and chatted with Rifqa. She told him she was a Christian. The Barys wanted some answers.

“I told Rifqa we had to sit down and talk. But she avoided any such thing. I took away her laptop and disconnected her cell phone for a short time. Her mother confronted her and told her to tell the truth, saying, ’We have to talk about it; otherwise all of us may have to go back to Sri Lanka,’” Mohammad said.

He said they were ready to accept her conversion but wanted their daughter to be the normal person she had been, the one who played with her younger brother, talked with her dad, made chili for her mother, wrote poetry, took guitar lessons.

Instead, on July 18 Rifqa disappeared from her house taking with her a few clothes and a laptop. The Barys contacted the police and tried to find her on their own. At Golden Valley restaurant where Rifqa worked part-time, the manager told Mohammad to check with a pastor named Brian Williams who Rifqa often talked about. She had also shown the manager a picture of Williams baptizing her.

Rilwan, Rifqa’s 18 year-old brother, found a flashcard that Rifqa had accidentally left which contained lots of disturbing information about Pastor Williams. They gave it to the police who threatened Williams with arrest unless Rifqa showed up. That is when Pastor Lorenz contacted the Orlando police, stating they had been harboring Rifqa since she had arrived in Orlando on a Greyhound bus. The Barys thought that now it was an open and shut case. Mohammad thought he would go to Orlando and the police would hand over his daughter to him. He was so naive; he did not even hire a lawyer. (He was provided one by the court).

Also he was in for a surprise. His daughter came to court with the evangelical Christians who had come prepared with false allegations: “Rifqa’s father would kill her as the Qur’an prescribed ‘honor killing’ for apostates.”

The evangelicals also alleged that there was physical and sexual abuse in the family. Ohio Children’s services, they said, had received two calls pertaining to that. Ohio’s Children Services, on the other hand, said it had no record of any such calls.

Rifqa has been placed in an undisclosed foster home. The evangelicals used YouTube to post videos of a “terrified” and “tearful” Rifqa hysterically stating that her father would kill her if she returned to Ohio. Commenting on that, Mohammad said, “In the YouTube video she said what she was coached to say. They have brainwashed my daughter into thinking that she is an apostate and will be killed. She was scared and said what she was told. You can even see the pastor saying, ‘good job.’ You can see she wore a headphone.”

Rilwan, who met his sister for an hour before the court proceedings and spoke to her by phone said, “For a little while, she appeared to be normal, saying she missed us, but she quickly changed when the pastor was there. She said in the Qur’an it says my father has to kill me. I told her to think logically; she knows our dad is not like that. Our parents took care of you for 17 years so why would they suddenly want to kill you?”

Rajaa also spoke to his sister over the phone. He very excitedly told her he was in first grade and had new books and wondered where she was and when she would come home.

The Barys have gone on CNN, Good Morning America, in an effort to tell their side of the story. “It was a good thing to do. People are beginning to understand. I am getting good feedback. They can see I am a family-oriented man; I love my children and came here to give them a better life. No religion teaches the separation of children from their parents. No true Christian would believe that. The pastor (Lorenz) thought that with their lies, they would get custody of Rifqa. They never thought I would drive 16 hours and show up in court to confront them. They were quite upset to see me there.”

But the Barys’ fight will be challenging. The evangelicals have started a drive. They sent thousands of e-mails to the governor of Florida asking him not to return Rifqa to Ohio. They have collected money and are asking for Rifqa to be released from her parents.

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