Father of Muslim teen who converted and fled to Florida: I did not threaten my daughter

Pastor Blake Lorenz of Global Revolution Church hugs a 17-year-old runaway during a custody hearing Aug. 10 (RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SENTINEL)

The father of an Ohio teenager who ran away to Florida, saying she was afraid her father would kill her for converting from Islam to Christianity, on Thursday said he loves his daughter and wants her to come home.

"Whether she is Christian or whatever religion she adopts, that's O.K," said Mohamed Bary. "Basically, we want our daughter back."

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  • Poll: What would you do if your child left your religion?

    A 17-year-old girl fled her home in Ohio saying she feared her Muslim parents would harm her for converting to Christianity. She has sought refuge with an Orlando pastor whom she met in an online prayer group.

    How would you feel if your minor child chose a religion other than your own?

    • I'd be fine as long as my child believed in a higher power.
    • I'd want to find out more about the new religion before passing judgment.
    • I'd be hurt but try to make an effort to understand.
    • It's the parents' job to instill a belief system. As long as he lives with me, he'll respect and practice my beliefs.
    • I firmly believe my religion is right for my child and would forbid practicing another religion under any circumstances.
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Fathima Rifqa Bary, who turned 17 this week, is currently in foster care. An Orlando judge on Monday ordered her placed with the Florida Department of Children & Families until social workers can figure out where she belongs and if her home in Columbus, Ohio, is safe.

Another hearing is set for Aug. 21.

Bary had been living with Blake and Beverly Lorenz, husband and wife pastors at Global Revolution Church of Orlando, whom she met through a prayer group on Facebook.

They took her in after she ran away, riding a bus from Ohio and popped up unannounced in Orlando.

In a video clip on YouTube, the girl, in tears, says, her father threatened to kill her, and if she had not fled, she'd be dead.

"I am fighting for my life," she said.

"I want to worship Jesus. I want to go to church on Sundays and read my Bible and say, 'Jesus is alive!' whenever I want to," she says in the clip.

But her father on Thursday said he never threatened to kill his daughter.

She had a falling out with her mother the night before she disappeared, he said. He was out of town.

Rifqa had gone out without permission, was gone more than three hours, and when she came home, her mother scolded her and told her that because of her behavior, the whole family might have to return to their native Sri Lanka, Mohamed Bary said.

His wife was upset and there were no plans to leave the U.S., Mohamed Bary said, but that apparently frightened his daughter.

His family, Mohamed Bary said, was a normal one. They attended mosque as a family from time to time, he said.

His daughter was an excellent student, a cheerleader in a prestigious school in Columbus who got A's and B's. She wanted to go to college and become a nurse, he said.

"Basically, the last two months, her behavior has changed a lot," he said. "She won't talk to us much."

She began to study the Bible and Christianity, he said. When he discovered that, he encouraged her to study Islam, he said. After that, he said he told her, "You can study whatever you want and decide what is good for you."

The Barys' court-appointed Orlando attorney, Craig McCarthy, Thursday said the girl's parents "didn't do or say anything that would give her a reasonable fear that her dad was going to kill her."

McCarthy also said the girl didn't tell anyone she was frightened while living at home. They reported her missing immediately and didn't know her whereabouts for weeks.

That was a terrible stretch of time, her father said.

Sgt. Jerry Cupp, who heads the missing-persons unit at the ¬Ą¬©Columbus Police Department, said he does not think the girl's father is a threat.

Cupp said the family left Sri Lanka a decade ago so their daughter could be treated for blindness in her right eye.

"All I'm picking up is love for his daughter and he wants her to be safe," he said.

Meanwhile, Eric Fenner, executive director of Franklin County Child Services in Ohio, said his employees have talked to the Barys, and his agency is ready to help re-unify the family, should the Florida judge send the teenager back.

"The family has been very cooperative, appropriately concerned, as you can imagine. Their daughter has run away from home. She had changed from their religion to Christianity, but the family has expressed an interest in trying to work these things through," he said.