Runaway Christian Convert Claims Her Life Is In Danger
Her parents also question how the girl ended up in the home of a Florida family she met through an online prayer group. Authorities are trying to determine whether the girl, Rifqa Bary, should stay in state custody or be returned to her family in Ohio.
"We love her, we want her back, she is free to practice her religion, whatever she believes in, that's OK," her father, Mohamed Bary, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
"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," he said.
Columbus police also question the girl's claim of being in danger.
Mohamed Bary "comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter," said Sgt. Jerry Cupp, chief of the Columbus police missing persons bureau.
Police investigating the girl's July 19 disappearance used phone and computer records to track her to the Rev. Blake Lorenz, pastor of Orlando, Fla.-based Global Revolution Church, who called authorities Aug. 6 to say she was staying with them.
With Lorenz holding his arm tightly around her, Rifqa told WFTV in Florida on Monday that she would be killed if she came home.
"They love God more than me; they have to do this," she said. "I'm fighting for my life. You guys don't understand."
Lorenz did not return a phone call to the AP seeking comment.
An Orlando judge on Monday ordered the girl into the custody of Florida's Department of Children and Families until another hearing next week.
The family is originally from Sri Lanka and emigrated in 2000 to seek medical help for Rifqa, who had lost sight in her right eye when she fell and struck a toy airplane on a couch at home.
Rifqa, a high school junior in well-off suburban New Albany, had been questioning her faith for several months, her father said. She attended church with friends from school and later attended services at another church, Xenos Christian Fellowship, a megachurch that emphasizes small groups meeting at home.
The church has no record of her being a member but says it's possible given the size of the church -- nearly 5,000 members, said spokesman Jay Reilly.
After Rifqa proselytized with a Bible at school, Mohamed Bary said, the family asked her to stop because it wasn't an appropriate activity in school. They also told her she had an obligation to study her original faith first, before choosing another.
But Mohamed Bary says they never threatened to kill or harm the girl. "She is still my daughter," said Bary, 47, a jeweler.
The family says Rifqa was baptized a Christian without their knowledge this year in Columbus. Around the same time, the girl met Lorenz through an online Facebook prayer group.
Rifqa's 18-year-old brother, Rilvan, said the family has its own worries about her well-being.
"We don't think the safest person is the pastor she met two weeks ago on Facebook," Rilvan Bary said.
Rifqa ran away without explanation or a note. She told WFTV that she hitchhiked to the Columbus bus station, then took a bus to Orlando. Her parents dispute that and say she must have had help, because hitchhiking from her suburban home would be nearly impossible and she didn't have enough money for the trip.