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Rifqa Bary, Muslim-turned Christian, tells her story

Elyssa Cherney
Orlando Sentinel

Orlando –

Rifqa Bary captivated many as the Ohio teenager who fled her Muslim family so she could be a Christian.

The journey began in her native Sri Lanka, where she grew up in a tight-knit Islamic community.

Her parents had said they moved to America in 2000 to seek medical help for Rifqa, whose right eye was blinded after her older brother threw a metal toy airplane at her.

But they really left because she had been molested by an extended family member — a new detail Bary divulges in an autobiography that was released on May 19.

Rifqa Bary, 22, fled her Ohio home after she said her father threatened to kill her for converting from Islam to Christianity.

“In some Muslim cultures, like mine, this kind of violation is a great source of dishonor,” Bary writes in the book. “Yet the shame is not attached to the abuser; it is cast on the victim. So not only was I viewed now in my parents’ eyes as a half-blind picture of imperfection, but I was also a shameful disgrace to the Bary name. My mere presence and appearance were a stain against the most important thing of all — our family honor.”

Bary recounts her rigid upbringing, experience with the judicial system and battle with uterine cancer in the memoir, “Hiding in the Light: Why I Risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus.” It is published by a Colorado Springs division of the Crown Group at Penguin Random House that specializes in religious books.

Now a 22-year-old college sophomore, Bary said in a phone interview that she wanted to get her side of the story out. A gag order during the 2009 and 2010 court proceedings over her custody prevented her from doing so before. And it has taken time for her to heal enough to put her story on paper.

“I was traumatized right when it happened, and I needed time to really process everything,” Bary said recently. “For the rest of my life I will be recovering.”

Almost six years ago, Bary boarded a Greyhound bus that would take her 1,000 miles away from home and her father, who she said had threatened to kill her for converting to Christianity. She stayed with a local Christian evangelical family she met through Facebook until court battles here put her in state custody.

Ultimately, an Orange County circuit judge ordered her back to Ohio — where her parents wanted her — until she aged out of foster care.

Bary’s sojourn in Central Florida was marked by jail time, court hearings and revolving foster homes to keep her location undisclosed.

She first breathed in the humid air here in July 2009 when she stepped off the Greyhound bus and heard strangers calling her secret name: “Anna! Over here!”

They took her to the home of Beverly and Blake Lorenz, a husband-wife minister team she had known only over the Internet. She stayed with them for two weeks while a manhunt ensued in her suburban Ohio hometown.

After learning that friends who helped her escape could face criminal charges, Bary turned herself in to authorities in Florida. Then 16, she spent two days in a juvenile jail until a judge released her.

Despite those hardships, she says she considers Orlando “a place of refuge for me.”

“Every time I come I really want to cry ... It’s the place that I ran to for safety,” she said.

In the first of many court hearings that would span over three months, Bary told a judge she feared she would become the victim of an “honor killing” for her conversion to Christianity.

Investigations by the Columbus Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not corroborate this threat. At the time her father, Mohamed Bary, said Rifqa could practice any religion she wanted as long as she came home. Reached at his Ohio home recently, he would not comment on his daughter’s book.

As her story gained international attention, Bary became a symbol of religious freedom to the thousands of people who bombarded Florida politicians with pleas to keep her safe in Orlando.

Then Gov. Charlie Crist, who was running for an open senate seat against Sen. Marco Rubio, issued statements supporting Bary.

But she got a different message in the courtroom: “The state agency that reported directly to him, DCF, was doing things directly to the contrary, trying to get the pressure off him (and his campaign) by sending me back to Ohio,” Bary wrote.

At one point, a DCF attorney sought to disqualify Bary’s private attorney, John Stemberger, because his association with a national advocacy group was not in Bary’s best interest. The judge denied the motion.

Bary also recalls an interview with Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents that was done without the knowledge or presence of her attorney.

“These hearings and their implications terrified me,” Bary wrote. “My life was hanging in the balance of a judicial system that demanded I prove the validity of my abuse while seeming to begin from a position that seriously doubted I was telling the truth.”

A spokeswoman for DCF said the agency fully vetted threats to Bary’s safety, but couldn’t keep her in Florida because she wasn’t a resident.

Doctors diagnosed Bary with a rare form of uterine cancer after she had been transported back to Ohio state custody. They gave her one year to live.

By this time, Bary was weeks away from graduating from high school as valedictorian, and her parents had stopped their legal battle to bring her under their roof.

After enduring eight weeks of chemotherapy and several surgeries to remove the cancer, she felt compelled by God to stop treatments and refused a recommended hysterectomy, she said.

Today, Bary is somehow in remission. After taking a few years off of school, she is now studying politics and philosophy and considering law school so she can help people like herself.

Unlike most 22-year-olds, she’s not on social media. She said she needs to remain undetectable so that people angry with her choices cannot harm her. She’s still not ready to reconcile with her parents.

“Here I am, trying to live a fairly normal life,” she said. “I’m a student, I’m involved in church, but I have this story, and it’s an impacting story, and I still feel like my life is in danger. I don’t live in fear all the time, but I still have to be wise and cautious.”