What Rifqa Bary Means To The Religious Right

The saga of Rafiq Bary continues to drag on.

The short version is that Bary is a 17 year old girl from a Muslim family in Ohio who converted to Christianity, reportedly 4 years ago. Several months ago, her father bought her a laptop and she started spending all of her time on Facebook and sometime during that period became convinced that her father was going to kill her in an “honor killing.”  Someone eventually bought her a bus ticket and she fled from her home in Ohio to Florida where she lived for nearly two weeks Blake and Beverly Lorenz of Global Revolution Church, whom she had gotten to know through a Facebook prayer group. Her parents say she’s been brainwashed, her defenders say they are just trying to save her life.

Bary’s case has, in recent weeks, become a huge deal for the Religious Right and has been getting lots of coverage from places like Fox News, WorldNetDaily, OneNewsNow, and Human Events and has also been championed by several Religious Right groups like Concerned Women for America, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission.

It’s likewise been a huge deal on right-wing blogs, and some bloggers even showed up outside of the hearing last week:

Before the hearing on Thursday, outside in front of the courthouse, Tom Trento held a news conference, as he did before the first hearing. He’s from the Florida Security Council, an organization with the slogan of “Securing Florida Against Terror.” This time, though, he brought a pastor from Ohio and a pair of anti-Islam bloggers.

Jamal Jivanjee, the Ohio pastor, compared Rifqa Bary to Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who was killed by Nazis in World War II and whose diary became what many consider one of the most important books of the 20th century.

Robert Spencer, who writes on a blog called Jihad Watch, told reporters Islam was here to take over America. Pam Geller of the Atlas Shrugs blog dismissed the results of the Franklin County investigation by saying things were “corrupt in Ohio.”

“Forget your political correctness!” she said.

But the driving force behind this entire spectacle seems to be John Stemberger, who stepped in to represent Bary and just so happens to be the president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council, which is a state affiliate of Focus on the Family.  He was also deeply involved in passing Florida’s anti-gay marriage amendment last November. 

Once he got involved, he started leveling all sorts of wild accusations, claiming that if Bary were sent back to her parents she’d be murdered and alleging that the mosque her parents attend is a terrorist hotbed and throwing around allegations of sexual and physical abuse. He even publicly revealed Bary’s parent’s address in Ohio.

The authorities in Ohio conducted an investigation and found there was no reason to suspect that such allegations were true and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted its own investigation and delivered it to court last week ahead of a scheduled hearing on Bary’s situation. But suddenly Stemberger asked the judge to seal the report so that nobody in the press or the public could see it.  Though those involved has been barred from discussing the report’s findings, Bary’s parent’s attorney stated that it came back “very favorable” and contained “no evidence whatsoever” of alleged abuse or threats of death made by the girl’s parents. The judge ordered the FDLE’s investigation into allegations against her parents was sealed for ten days and ordered Bary and her parents to seek the mediation within 30 days, scheduling another hearing for September 29 if the family is not able to resolve the conflict.

Whatever happens regarding Bary’s status, it seems clear that those claiming to represent her interests will continue to utilize a strategy that hinges largely on transforming the story of a runaway girl into a full-blown war between Christianity and Islam:

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch. He was in Orlando to take part in a news conference supporting the girl’s contention that she would be at grave risk if returned to her family.

“Her testimony is entirely credible. There is indeed a death penalty in Islam for those who leave Islam. Her father attended a mosque that is very devout. It’s not the least unbelievable that with the death penalty for apostasy existing, this would put this girl at risk,” he notes.

According to Spencer, those advocating for the family attempted to disrupt their news conference. “There was a very rude individual who was connected with the family in Ohio who disrupted our press conference and tried to spread lies about Islamic apostasy law,” he adds.

While others will continue to use it an opportunity to win more converts to Christ:

Attorneys for Bary’s parents have accused Stemberger in particular of using the case to attack Islam. On Monday, Stemberger filed documents alleging the Ohio mosque the Bary family attends has ties to terrorist groups, claims the mosque’s leader denies.

Christian observers say Bary’s case, and the media attention it has received, may be part of God’s plan for the teen. If her parents had learned of her faith just a year from now, there likely would have been little uproar.

“It is possible that God wanted to do something through this for the Muslim children,” said evangelist Steven Masood, a native of Pakistan whose father tried to kill him after learning of his conversion in 1973. He ultimately fled the predominantly Muslim nation in 1981 after being imprisoned for violating its anti-blasphemy laws, which are punishable by death.

“There are teenagers who are looking seriously at what has happened,” Masood added. “[They say], ‘If she is doing this, why can’t we?’ It will bring a lot of honest teenagers out of Islam.”

[Jamal] Jivanjee agrees. “I think God wants to elevate her story,” he said. “He wants to use it as a wake-up call to other Christians … and a story of hope for other Muslims. What gave her courage to stand up to her parents has been Jesus. She’d been quiet about her abuse in the past, but she’s not quiet about Jesus. It needs to be talked about.”

In fact, it seems as if actively seeking the conversion of Muslims is part of a growing right-wing effort:

The Christian missionaries came to Dearborn [Michigan] this summer from across the United States to win over souls for Jesus.

The evangelists handed out literature, held religious debates and met with residents in a city they sought out because of its large numbers of Muslims. It’s part of an increasing effort by some Christians, mostly evangelicals, to convert the Muslims of metro Detroit — in schools, at festivals and on street corners.

To Eric Haven, executive pastor at Woodside Bible Church in Troy, the growth of Islam in the United States gives churches a chance to convert closer to home.

“For years, Christians have sent missionaries around the world to proclaim the gospel of Christ,” Haven said. “In this day and age, the world is coming to America. … So, it’s a great opportunity.”

The efforts have stepped up in recent years as more Christians have become aware of the Islamic presence in Dearborn, where about one-third of the city’s 98,000 residents are of Arab descent, many of them Muslim and some Christian …

There is money behind the push. One group spent at least $67,000 on materials, airfare and lodging for Christian activists to visit Dearborn this summer.

Some residents said the efforts in recent months have crossed over into harassment and bigotry.

During the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn in June, for instance, some Christian evangelists were accused of openly insulting Islam’s prophet. And others yelled at passersby “that they were going to hell because they were Muslim,” according to a Dearborn police report.