Runaway convert to stay in Fla. pending hearing

Last Updated: Sat, Aug 22, 2009 04:25 hrs

An Ohio teen who says she ran away from home because she feared punishment for converting from Islam to Christianity will stay in Florida while custody issues are being settled, a judge ruled Friday.

Rifqa Bary, 17, will remain in foster care until another hearing Sept. 3, Judge Dan Dawson said. Authorities are still deciding whether the case should stay in Florida or return to Columbus, Ohio, where the teen lived with her parents and two brothers.

Asked at the hearing if she wanted to say anything, Rifqa Bary replied, "I love my family. I love them so much ... yet I'm so in fear of my life." She then expressed her devotion to Christianity.

Her father, Mohamed Bary, told the judge that Rifqa would be able to practice Christianity if she returned home.

"She is my daughter and I love her," he said. "I love her and want her to come home."

The teen's mother, Aysha, broke down and cried as she told the judge, "I love my daughter and need my daughter back."

The judge encouraged both sides to try resolve the custody issues and granted a request by Rifqa to visit with one of her brothers.

Before the next hearing, he said, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will finish investigating how the teen came to Florida and whether she is in any danger.

She disappeared July 19 and police used phone and computer records to track her to the Rev. Blake Lorenz, pastor of Orlando, Fla.-based Global Revolution Church. Authorities said the teen had met him through an online Facebook prayer group.

The girl has since been assigned to a foster family approved by the Florida Department of Children and Families and is not with Lorenz, authorities said.

The girl's family is originally from Sri Lanka and emigrated in 2000 to seek medical help for Rifqa, who had lost sight in her right eye when she fell and struck a toy airplane on a couch at home. They say they have never threatened to harm her.

Columbus police also question the girl's claim of being in danger.

Mohamed Bary "comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter," said Sgt. Jerry Cupp, chief of the Columbus police missing persons bureau, commenting recently.

Rifqa, a high school junior, had been questioning her faith for several months, her father has said. The family says Rifqa was baptized a Christian without their knowledge this year in Columbus.

After Rifqa proselytized with a Bible at school, Mohamed Bary had said, the family asked her to stop because it wasn't an appropriate activity in school. They also told her she had an obligation to study her original faith first, before choosing another.

But Mohamed Bary says they never threatened her. "She is still my daughter," said Bary, 47, a jeweler.

The case has attracted the interest of politicians and Christian activists who view it as a test of religious liberty. A handful of Christian activists protested outside the juvenile court building Friday.