ORLANDO (FBW) – Is it really possible the life of a teen-ager in America could be at risk because she rejected her parent’s Islamic faith to become a Christian?
That’s the fear of Rifqa Bary, a 17-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, who ran away from home earlier this month to Florida. At least for now, the State of Florida believes there’s enough evidence of possible danger that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has taken emergency protective custody of the girl.
“What’s at stake in this case is Rifqa Bary’s life and the lives of thousands of other people like her,” attorney John Stemberger told Florida Baptist Witness.
Bary’s fear of death for converting to Christianity is an all-too common reality for ex-Muslims across the world, according to a former Muslim who grew up in the Columbus mosque closely connected with the Bary family’s mosque.
“I’m Rifqa Bary and I’ve been a Christian for four years. I just want to say that I love my parents. … Yet I’m so in fear for my life because of the past abuse that I’ve encountered,” said the Ohio teen Aug. 21 at a juvenile court hearing in Orlando to consider her request for emergency protective custody.
Bary’s parents have disputed Rifqa’s abuse claims, including her fear that her life is at risk for converting to Christianity.
Her father, Mohamed Bary, a jeweler, asserts his daughter was brainwashed by the Orlando pastor to whom Rifqa fled.
Bary told Orlando’s WESH 2 News, “This is cult group who kidnapped my daughter and took her away,” according to World Net Daily.
In an Aug. 18 petition, Stemberger – the Orlando attorney and well-know pro-family activist who is representing Rifqa – asserted the girl has been beaten by her father and brother and sexually assaulted by an uncle in Sri Lanka.
“The child is in imminent threat of harm not only from her parents but also from the extreme radical Muslim community in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio” because of her Christian conversion, the petition argues.
The petition contends Rifqa’s father threatened to strike her with her laptop computer and said, “If you have this Jesus in your heart, you’re dead to me. You are not my daughter. I will kill you.”
Stemberger said in the petition the Bary family’s mosque – Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Columbus – was home to Salah Sultan as “resident scholar” before being banned from the U.S. and “is known as a global terrorist who publicly advocates the killing of Americans and Jews.”
The petition also claims Columbus is under investigation for U.S. operations of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
On the basis of these concerns, the petition asserted, “It is best to place the child with a licensed foster care home rather than place the child at risk of harm from the parents or from the perils of running away.”
Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson granted the request for emergency protective custody on Aug. 21 and set a Sept. 3 hearing to further consider Bary’s custody status.
In an Aug. 27 interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Stemberger said although he repeatedly has told Rifqa this case is about her best interests, the teen responds, “This case is about everybody else out there like me and that’s why I want to tell my story.”
Stemberger declined a request to make Rifqa available for an interview, citing privacy and safety concerns.
With regard to the alleged threat facing Rifqa in Columbus, Stemberger told the Witness, “The documentation shows that this is a mosque that has ties to extreme Muslim groups and terrorist activity. The CEO and spiritual leader is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood … a group that is actually banned in most Muslim countries because of how extreme it is.”
Although president of Florida Family Policy Council, Stemberger is representing Rifqa through his private law practice.
While the pro-family activist would typically argue for parental rights, Stemberger noted “no right is absolute and all rights give way to certain other compelling interests,” including the “right to life.”
Citing his experience as a guardian ad litem in which he has seen the results of terrible child abuse, Stemberger said, “The state has an interest in the protection of its citizens, particularly the protection of vulnerable citizens.”
Stemberger told the Witness Rifqa became acquainted with Blake and Beverly Lorenz through a prayer group on Facebook, the online social networking Web site. After arriving in Orlando, Rifqa made contact with the Lorenzes, who gave her temporary shelter before she was taken into the custody of DCF. The Lorenzes co-pastor Global Revolution Church. According to Stemberger Blake Lorenz pastored a United Methodist church in Orlando for 25 years before starting his current congregation.
While expressing appreciation for Gov. Charlie Crist’s support for Rifqa, Stemberger said the “real hero” has been Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose office “took this matter very seriously” and provided valuable research assistance “giving credibility to the claim that this is a serious matter.”
Both Crist and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, opponents for the Republican nomination for next year’s U.S. Senate election, issued Aug. 21 statements expressing their concern for Rifqa. McCollum is running for governor in 2010.
According to Ergun Mehmet Caner, the threat to Rifqa for her rejection of Islam and conversion to Christianity is real. “There’s no question,” Caner said in an Aug. 27 interview with the Witness.
Caner, who converted to Christianity as a 16-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, grew-up in the mosque, the Islamic Foundation of Central Ohio, out of which the Bary family mosque, Noor Islamic Cultural Center, was started and remains connected.
Now a Baptist minister and president of Liberty Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va., Caner is a well-known apologist for the Christian faith – activity for which a fatwa, an Islamic religious ruling calling for his death, was issued last year “that put us on the road for a while.”
Because of his outspoken repudiation of Islam and defense of Christianity, Caner said he has to take special security precautions.
Caner and his two brothers, who became Christians within 14 months of his conversion, were disowned by their father, who was the architect of their Columbus mosque.
Rather than sending his sons back to their home country of Turkey, the decision of the eldest Caner to disown his children “was an act of mercy,” Caner told the Witness. Caner said his father died in 1999 as a Muslim, while his mother is now a Christian.
“When someone says, ‘Oh, it’s horrible what happened to you.’ No, what my father did was merciful,” Caner explained, noting his fate could have been much worse.
The risk of an “honor killing” – an obligation under Islamic law for those who reject Islam – is routine in Muslim nations.
…“The United Nations tabulates about 5,000 such ‘honor killings’ annually around the world, and they have been documented even in the United States.”
“This happens every single day,” Caner said, pointing to organizations like Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern that report on Christian persecution.
“How tragic is it that the murder of someone solely for their conversion would be considered routine? But this is 1,300 years of Islamic history,” Caner said.
Caner said the conversion of a female – especially a minor – is particularly offensive under Islam because the “daughter carries the honor in the family.”
He noted under Sharia law, four witnesses are required to validate a rape claim. “Otherwise, she is put to death because she brought dishonor to the family.”
Caner compared the fate of returning Rifqa to her Columbus home to that of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy at the center of an international controversy in 2000 who was ultimately returned to his home country after a failed attempt to seek asylum in the U.S. on his behalf by Miami relatives.
“Take Elian Gonzalez and make the consequences exponentially worse. This isn’t a girl going back into Communism. This is sending a girl back to her death,” Caner said.
Stemberger told the Witness the “palpable bias” by the news media in coverage of Rifqa’s case is “stunning to me.”
He said the media’s bias is apparent in the fact that many news organizations – including CNN and MSNBC – have ignored the case completely. The bias is also clear in coverage that has “demonized the pastor” who helped Rifqa.
“Instead of trying to go after or target, if you will, the religious men that would try to hurt her, they’re go after the religious man that’s tried to help her,” he said.
“The bias of trying to protect Islam and trying to destroy Christianity is rather stark,” Stemberger said.
While Stemberger was careful to note that most Muslims are “law-abiding, tax-paying” citizens, “there are a significant, growing number of extreme members of Islam that take the Quran literally and engage in things like honor killings. And they just can’t be tolerated in a civilized society.”