Fathima Rifqa Bary, who goes by Rifqa, is a 17-year-old from Columbus, Ohio who ran away from home – not an uncommon occurrence for 17-year-olds. But the circumstances surrounding her story have opened a host of legal, cultural and theological issues.
Her Muslim parents moved the family to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 2000, seeking medical attention for Rifqa, who had lost her right eye playing with a toy. Rifqa, who the Columbus Dispatch reports was a cheerleader at her high school, joined a Bible study group on Facebook earlier this year and was baptized at a local church.
Last month, she hopped on a bus to Orlando to meet with Rev. Blake Lorenz, who she met through a Facebook prayer group for the couple’s non-denominational Global Revolution Church. Her parents reported their daughter missing and local news covered her disappearance for a full two weeks before police were able to trace her to Lorenz’s Orlando church.
Here’s what happened when Rifqa was found: Lorenz decides to remain silent and displays Rifqa to a local television news station. She launches into an emotional plea to save her life from Islam. She claims that her parents “love God more than me” and therefore have to perform an honor killing on her. She argues “it’s in the Quran”. No it’s not, sweet little Rifqa. It’s not in the Quran. Whoever told you that is either ignorant or a liar. You should look it up yourself before claiming it’s in the Quran.
Rev. Lorenz is then quoted in a local television station report saying that if a Muslim leaves his religion and does not return to Islam in a couple of days, then he must be killed. He claims that someone showed him the verse. There is no such verse, Rev. Lorenz. In every faith, apostasy is shunned but ultimate judgment is left to God, not people.
Religious conflicts occur in some countries where there are volatile and tense relations between faith groups, particularly where war and ethnic conflicts occur (the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia). The United States of America is different. Let’s preserve the tradition of American religious pluralism and not fall into religious or cultural warfare.
The issue of apostasy is actually addressed in a controversial and oft-misunderstood law. Centuries ago, the apostasy law was actually a treason law, created to address what should happen when a soldier in a Muslim army converts to the other side and then fights against a Muslim country. That’s the equivalent of an American working for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or for the Nazis in World War II. Under U.S. law, treason is punishable by death.
Now, state authorities in Florida and Ohio will have to clear up the mess and determine Rifqa’s residence. Her father, Mohamed Bary, has a strong endorsement by Sgt. Jerry Cupp of the Columbus Police Department. Cupp told the Associated Press that Bary “comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter.”
For his part, Bary told the Associated Press: “We love her, we want her back, she is free to practice her religion, whatever she believes in, that’s OK. What these people are trying to do is not right – I don’t think any religion will teach to separate the kids from their parents.”
Mohamed Bary allowed his daughter to become a cheerleader and says she can practice any faith she wants – clearly, he is not a fundamentalist. He is a concerned father who believes his daughter was brainwashed and kidnapped. Let’s see how this story unfolds.
Salam Al Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American institution which informs and shapes public opinion and policy by serving as a trusted resource to decision makers in government, media and policy institutions. This article was previously published in The Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.