A woman who said she feared for her life after she converted from Islam to Christianity as an Ohio teenager has written a book through which she hopes to inspire girls and women who are desperate for freedom.
Rifqa Bary, 22, gained national attention in 2009 when she ran away from her northeast Columbus home to Florida, saying her father had threatened to kill her.
The book Hiding in the Light: Why I Risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus tells her story. It was released on Tuesday by the WaterBrook Press division of Penguin Random House.
“Writing this book was so painful. I wept so much reliving everything again, and my hope is to save others who read it, to shed hope and light, and that it would cause other people to see that you can leave, that there is hope,” Bary, an evangelical Christian, said on Tuesday in a telephone interview.
“Even though I’ve had so much loss in my life, I’ve experienced more joy and love than I ever dreamed of, and I found that to be in my faith in Jesus Christ.”
Bary is a college student studying philosophy and politics and said her life experiences, including help she received from others, have inspired her to consider a career in law. She cites concern for her safety as the reason for not disclosing where she lives.
Bary was 12 when she began practicing Christianity and 16 when she left her parents’ home near New Albany, boarding a Greyhound bus to take a two-day trip to Florida. There, she was taken in by a woman with whom she’d been communicating on Facebook and the woman’s husband.
She said her father had threatened to kill her because she’d quit practicing their Muslim religion and that her mother threatened to send her to an asylum in their native Sri Lanka. She eventually was returned to Ohio, where she stayed in foster homes as her case was handled in juvenile court. That case ended when she turned 18.
The book describes routine physical abuse from her parents and older brother, largely blaming the family’s faith and mosque. She describes lying to attend Christian services, hiding her Bible at home, using code words during telephone conversations about Christianity and assuming a fake name.
Bary’s parents have said they did not abuse her and that they allowed her to practice Christianity.
The allegations against the family were looked into and found to be uncorroborated by law enforcement in both Florida and Ohio, said Shayan Elahi, a Florida attorney who represented Mohamed Bary, Rifqa’s father.
“The family is still very heartbroken over the loss of their child and the way they were treated by the judicial system,” Elahi said. “They still miss her and love her and they wish she would reconcile and talk to them.”
He said the 16-year-old Bary was a minor lured away from her family for political pursuits and that her parents were discriminated against because they practice Islam. He called some of Bary’s claims lies and said she still is living under delusions planted in her head by others.
“She was a child being supported by Islamophobes. They were putting things in her head, and she was mimicking them,” Elahi said. “Rifqa became an exploited teen, exploited by these adults for their political and religious agendas.”
The mosque that the Barys attended, Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Hilliard, was not involved in the “personal family issue,” said Imran Malik, chairman of the board that oversees the mosque. He said nothing taught at the center advocates or condones physical abuse.
Bary said she respects Muslims, finds aspects of the faith beautiful and vehemently denies claims that she is anti-Muslim.
“It’s the opposite. I love Muslims. I cry over them because I was once in that place,” she said. “I desire with all my heart that they experience the freedom that I’ve found in Christ.”
Bary has finished one year of college, supported by a scholarship and a family who heard her story and wanted to help. She plans to seek U.S. citizenship when she turns 23.
She said she attends church each Sunday, has participated in inner-city work and a mission trip to India, and said she practices her faith by “loving people and serving.” She said she has recovered from uterine cancer that was diagnosed when she was 17.
She has no intention of returning to Ohio, which she stills views as an unsafe place, and stays off social-media sites, but keeps in contact with many of the people who were involved in her conversion and helped her run away.
When asked about law enforcement failing to corroborate her abuse claims, she suggested that there was political pressure involved. She criticized Florida officials for investigating claims that originated in Ohio and said it grieved her that people in authority failed to look out for the weak and hurting. Her friends can testify to her fear, she said, as does her decision to give up everything and run away.
She said she had “no intent on becoming a national symbol.”
“I simply wanted to worship Jesus freely and go to church and be a Christian and not be afraid that my faith would cost me my life,” she said.
What Bary misses the most is the normalcy of family life, including her mother’s cooking — “ there’s no one else in the world that can cook chicken curry like my mumma” — and her younger brother’s hugs.
“I love my family and I’m unashamed of that. I desperately desire for them to know that,” she said. “I pray for them and I forgive my father and I forgive my family for everything that happened.” Still, she has chosen not to be in touch, and her parents don’t know where she lives.
She said she “would do it all over again” and plans to continue sharing her story.”