When a teenager runs away from home, jumps on a cross-country bus and ends up in a juvenile detention center in a distant state, one might surmise that there were a combination of drugs, rebellion and a forbidden love interest involved. Not so in the case of Rifqa Bary, who fled for her life after becoming a Christian. Regardless, law enforcement and the courts obtusely fail to grasp what sets her narrative apart from her runaway peers. The very religious freedom that has been a part of America’s history means little to devout Muslims who live here, beyond seeing it as a threat to family unity and their cultural understanding of honor. In their eyes, their daughter has committed a capital crime: apostasy.
Rifqa’s family immigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States in 2000 and since then their children have thrived in school and other activities — first in New York and later in Ohio. There, the father, Muhamed, chose a mosque among several in the area for its strict interpretation of Islam (which they refer to as “original Islam”) and the faith was very important to the family. There were the regular weekly gatherings, the youth groups and special presentations offered to enhance the understanding of how to live as Muslims today.[i]
In November 2005, Rifqa embraced Christianity. She had been positively influenced by the witness of Christians in her high school, had studied further through books and the internet, and even reached out to Christians online, who welcomed her into the faith.
The family had been vaguely aware of her interest in Christianity for much of that time and responded with a desire that she learn more about Islam. At times, they expressed greater frustration with her and often reacted badly — using very harsh words, threats and physical force — but Rifqa endured the persecution, only confiding to friends about the violence in the home. She was occasionally seen by a school nurse, but those visits were not properly documented nor reported to the child welfare agencies responsible for oversight. While her home life wasn’t pleasant, there was no reason for her to fear for her life.
Unfortunately, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, the mosque to which the Bary family belongs (despite the closer proximity of other mosques) is headed by a man who associates with known terrorists, has guest speakers of a highly militant form of Islam, and whose institution has been under surveillance by the FBI for some time.[ii] There Islam is interpreted in its most extreme, fossilized form.[iii] The Bary children were required by their father to attend special sessions impressing on them this form of their faith, and many events were hosted in their own home.
When members of the mosque heard that Rifqa had become a Christian, they intervened and reminded her father of his responsibilities. Now whatever paternal affection had previously softened his response to his daughter’s apostasy was replaced with a heightened sense of duty, backed by the unrelenting pressure of the Islamic community to which he belonged. There may have been tears behind closed doors, pleas from Aysha, his conflicted wife, and anguish in his heart about his responsibility, but he had to act decisively in order to make his own priorities clear to the Noor Center. Rifqa’s mother even told her that she would have to be sent back to Sri Lanka as a result of leaving Islam.
There are indications that her father began liquidating assets, which may have indicated that he intended to move the whole family back to Sri Lanka. It was possible that he was arranging a marriage. There were the on-going discussions with the mosque leaders. There were the violent episodes in the home that revealed to Rifqa that her conversion was now going to have very serious consequences. Through a Facebook prayer group, she contacted a pastor and told him of her situation. He encouraged her to take refuge with him, and that triggered her exodus from Ohio to Florida. After initially being locked up in a detention center as a runaway and ward of the state, she was released into the care of a Christian foster family in Orlando.
Rifqa has secured an attorney, John Stemberger, who has extensive experience with abused children and the mechanisms in place to remove them from dangerous family situations. He is pushing for Rifqa to remain in the custody of the state of Florida until her eighteenth birthday, fearing that a return to her family will lead to injury or death.
His concerns are not unfounded. Rifqa’s own tearful plea expresses her genuine believe that her father is required to kill her, due to Islam’s firm directives about apostasy. The Bary’s have impressed on their children not only the demands of Islam, but the importance of their own family history, which only adds to the Rifqa’s trauma. She notes, “[I]n 150 generations of my family no one has known Jesus. I am the first one. Imagine the honor in killing me. There is great honor in that.”
There are others who have come forward to support Rifqa Bary in her quest to live apart from her family. W. L. Cati founded “White Horse Ministry,” after having divorced an abusive Muslim man who turned on his children when they chose to be Christian. She believes Rifqa’s fears are well-founded. “As far as Muslims are concerned, she should have the death penalty for converting to Christianity.”
There is also the sobering case of Aqsa Parvez, who at age sixteen was strangled on December 10th , 2007. Her father and brother are charged with murder, “ Friends of the slain teen said she feared for her life and had been threatened by family members in the weeks prior to her death over a religious dispute.”[iv] Similarly, Amina and Sarah Said, 18 and 17 respectively, were both shot on New Years Day, 2008, a crime for which their father would be charged except that he has been at large ever since.[v] A quick internet search turns up many similar stories, showing that Islam is often tied to family disputes that end very badly for young women.
Today, there will be another hearing in Rifqa’s case, determining where she can live in the coming months. While she has not wanted to talk to her family even by phone, she insists that she loves them. She simply cannot trust that their family honor and interpretation of their Holy Books will not lead them to harm her for abandoning her Muslim roots.
Next week, we will look at their scriptures and the way in which they are interpreted. The most important consideration in viewing the Muslin worldview is how they choose to distinguish the will of God, how much they value human freedom, how they respond to the burning quest for truth. Please pray for God’s will to be done with Rifqa and all who seek Him with an open heart.
[i] Sworn deposition given by Rifqa Bary