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Did pastors break law by taking in runaway Christian teen?

Rifqa Bary, the Ohio teenager who ran away from her Muslim family, lived in the Orlando home of evangelical pastors Blake and Beverly Lorenz for 16 days before authorities knew where she was.

Florida law says you can't shelter an unmarried minor for more than 24 hours without calling either the authorities or the parents or guardians of the minor.

Sheltering an unmarried minor is a first-degree misdemeanor. First-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in prison.

The language of the law is clear. What's not clear is whether authorities are investigating the Lorenzes and what they did or didn't do when they took in the young Christian convert in late July.

The Orlando police say their involvement in the case is over.

State Department of Children and Families officials say they're not investigating. They asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do that.

Prosecutors in the State Attorney's Office in Orlando say they're waiting to see what the FDLE concludes.

"At this point," FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha said, "we're not going to be in a position to say if what the pastor did was breaking the law or not. We might be able to comment later."

The Bary parents want something done.

"The 21/2 weeks that Rifqa was missing were a living hell for the parents. Was she dead? Was she alive?" said Shayan Elahi, an Orlando lawyer who's serving as a spokesman for the family. "The Lorenzes, under the statute, had the obligation to go to the authorities and they did not.

"They didn't follow the law," Elahi said.

Rifqa, 17, fled from her family's home near Columbus, Ohio, because she believes her parents must murder her in an Islam-mandated "honor killing" due to her conversion to Christianity.

She has been a Christian for four years. She has also accused her parents of past mental and physical abuse.

The parents, Mohamed, a jeweler, and Aysha, a homemaker, deny all the allegations, saying they love her and want her back home, and that she's free to practice whatever religion she wants.

The case for many people has turned into a high-pitched, polarizing battle between religions. The court system sees a dependency matter.

Last Friday, a judge in Orlando decided that the girl should stay in Florida with a foster family, while the FDLE looks into the legitimacy of her claims.

The next hearing is Sept. 3.

Last month, the girl came to Orlando because she had met Beverly Lorenz through a Facebook prayer group, United States of Prayer. They exchanged messages during the spring and early summer, and late one night in early July talked for 15 minutes on the phone, praying together.

The girl's first full day in Orlando was July 22.

Blake Lorenz, 53, said last week in phone interviews with the Times that at some point he might have asked the girl if she should call home. "I may have," he said. He said she said no.

He said his first call to the DCF was in late July. The DCF says it can't confirm that the caller was Blake Lorenz — it's an anonymous tip line — but can say that it got a call about this matter on July 29. Blake Lorenz said he didn't give the girl's name.

"They told me they were going to send her back to Ohio, probably, and I said, 'I'm not going to give her name,' " he said. "We didn't want her to go back to Ohio. We were trying to protect her life."

He said his second call to the DCF was sometime in the first week of August. The DCF says it got that call on Aug. 6, two weeks after Rifqa arrived in Orlando.

That's the call that triggered a sequence of calls from one law enforcement agency to the next and ended with the Orlando police showing up on Aug. 7 at the Lorenzes' four-bedroom house in a gated community to pick her up.

"There was no criminal intent," Blake Lorenz told the Times last week. "This girl came fleeing for her life."

Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Did pastors break law by taking in runaway Christian teen? 08/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 7:56pm]
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