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Ohio runaway says she fears for life after converting to Christianity

ORLANDO — The thin girl looked into the TV camera on Aug. 10. It was her 17th birthday. She said she had fled from her family in Ohio. Now she was in a pastor's arms in the pastor's home here in Florida.

"Um, well, I, I'm a Christian," Rifqa Bary began, "and my parents are Muslim, they're extremely devout, and they can't know about my faith — well, um, they do now, but, um, they've threatened to kill me."

Some saw a new believer in Jesus Christ pleading for her life. Others saw a brainwashed teen parroting radical evangelicals.

Before the interview, this was a story of a missing person, of great interest to her family, her friends and the authorities looking for her. After the interview, though, Rifqa Bary became much more than that: a contested prize in a culture war.

The pastor's name is Blake Lorenz, he's the leader of a new church called Global Revolution, and here's what he said this week:

"These are the last days, these are the end times, and this conflict between Islam and Christianity is going to grow greater. This conflict between good and evil is going to grow greater."

Craig McCarthy, the court-appointed attorney for Rifqa's mother, sat the other day in the courthouse where this afternoon there will be a hearing in which a judge will decide what to do with Rifqa. He shook his head.

"This case," he said, "is about this family."

Rifqa's parents say they don't want to kill her. "It is completely false," Mohamed Bary said in a brief TV interview.

They're stressed, McCarthy said, and they have many questions — but one more than any other:

"How does their daughter end up halfway across the country in some preacher's arms?"

• • •

Mohamed and Aysha Bary saw their daughter, an honor student and a cheerleader, in the wee hours of July 19. She was gone in the morning. Her father called the Columbus Police Department later in the day to report her missing.

The police put out a national alert. They sent a picture of Rifqa to local papers and TV stations. They tried to monitor her computer and cell phone activity. Nothing.

It was that way for a week. Then two.

"It was as if she disappeared completely," Columbus detective Jerry Cupp said this week.

Down here, though, at least one group of people knew exactly where she was. Inside the four-bedroom home at 3825 Crescent Park Blvd., where Blake and Beverly Lorenz live with their three kids, who are 20, 24 and 25, Rifqa was staying up late to pray, sleeping into the early afternoons and eating Chick-fil-A.

Blake and Beverly met in church in Winter Park and married nearly 30 years ago. They co-pastor Global Revolution.

The congregation meets on Sunday mornings in Theater 10 in a movie megaplex not far from the Magic Kingdom. The language of last Sunday's service was of "prayer warriors" engaged in a struggle. Two words kept popping up: "the enemy."

• • •

Beverly Lorenz heard about Rifqa months ago from friends on Facebook who gathered at a group called the United States of Prayer. Rifqa was known as the girl from Ohio who converted to Christianity and was having a hard time with her parents.

In the spring and early summer, Beverly Lorenz sent Rifqa "seven or eight" Facebook messages, she said, telling the girl that she was praying for her.

In early July, she got up in the middle of the night to pray, she said, and saw Rifqa online, and sent her a message. She got a message back: Call me. They talked for 15 minutes.

"I was quoting Scripture," Beverly Lorenz said this week, "and just really speaking the word to her."

The next time Beverly Lorenz heard from Rifqa she was on a bus. She was coming to Orlando. It was July 21.

The Lorenzes sent some friends to pick her up at the bus station. Sitting in the family room, she looked like "a timid, scared little rabbit," Beverly Lorenz said.

Rifqa said that at home she had to read her Bible under the covers and that her dad had threatened to kill her to preserve the family's honor.

"The Koran does state that if somebody leaves their religion they will be killed," Beverly Lorenz said.

The Koran is like the Bible, or the Torah, or any other ancient, important religious text: Different passages are interpreted differently for different purposes.

But its "overarching principle," said M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Islamic scholar at DePaul University, comes in Chapter 2: "There can be no compulsion in religion."

Still, according to a United Nations estimate, there are as many as 5,000 "honor killings" a year worldwide. But killings in this country that some have called honor killings are prosecuted as what they are: murders.

"She really believes she'll be killed," Blake Lorenz said, "and we do, too."

He said he thinks he asked Rifqa if she wanted to call her parents. He said she said no.

The first time Blake Lorenz called the state Department of Children and Families was July 29 at 3:02 p.m. He says he asked them what would happen in a situation like this and that he was told she probably would be taken back home.

DCF says he was given numbers for the Orlando police. He says they asked him for his name and address and that he gave it. DCF says he did not. They agree on this, though: They asked him for the name of the girl, and he didn't give it.

On July 31 a story ran on TV in Ohio. Rifqa Bary: still missing.

• • •

Six days passed until DCF got a second call about Rifqa. Blake Lorenz says it was him.

He made allegations of child abuse in Ohio and said the girl was a runaway. This led to a chain of phone calls from Orlando to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to the Columbus police and back to the Orlando police. They went to the house on Aug. 7.

The officer took Rifqa to the Juvenile Assessment Center. He asked her questions. She refused to answer them.

The next morning, a Saturday, there was an emergency shelter hearing. A judge scheduled a full hearing for Monday morning — Aug. 10 — and ordered that until then Rifqa be put in a DCF shelter after a positive home study with a "suitable relative."

For some reason, a home study was done at the Lorenzes' house and she was left there.

DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner called it a "mistake" and said the investigator was "confused."

Two days later DCF reversed course. A supervisor wrote a note: "Home study was approved prior to being informed that the pastor's family was involved with possibly helping the child run away from Ohio."

The Lorenzes, the note said, "are not appropriate placement."

"We did not lure her down," Blake Lorenz said.

The hearing on the morning of Aug. 10 was postponed until that afternoon. In between those two times is when the local TV station came to the Lorenzes' home and taped the seven-minute interview with Rifqa. Blake Lorenz says his attorney told him to call TV.

This is how Rifqa ended up on TV, and then on YouTube, and then all over the world, saying her father was going to kill her.

Blake and Beverly Lorenz pray the judge keeps her in Florida.

But the case most likely will go back to Ohio. Rifqa's parents have already agreed for her to go to a foster home in Ohio for at least 30 days.

Family court is sometimes a clumsy way to fix messy situations, but the goal in cases like this is constant: to put families back together, as long as it's safe.

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

To see the video of Rifqa Barry's interview go to links.tampabay.com.

Ohio runaway says she fears for life after converting to Christianity 08/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 23, 2009 10:44am]
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