August 22, 2009 in Nation/World

Runaway convert to stay in Florida for hearing

Mike Schneider Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Rifqa Bary, 17, reads a Bible during court proceedings in Florida on Friday. Bary says she ran away because she feared punishment for converting to Christianity.
(Full-size photo)

ORLANDO, Fla. – 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 judge encouraged both sides to try to resolve the custody issues.

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.

The case has attracted the interest of politicians and Christian activists who view it as a test of religious liberty.

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