COLUMBUS, Ohio – An Ohio teenager who ran away to Florida after converting from Islam to Christianity and her Muslim parents have agreed to continue counseling to work out their differences.
Attorneys for 17-year-old Rifqa Bary and her parents came to the understanding Tuesday after a juvenile court hearing in Columbus.
The arrangement requires the girl and her parents to continue working with individual counselors. It does not mandate joint meetings.
Judge Elizabeth Gill told Rifqa and her parents they need to work hard on their situation before she turns 18 in August. Her parents have denied her claims that she would be harmed or killed for becoming a Christian.
The agreement also clarifies how Rifqa can have contact with Christian pastors who allegedly helped her run away in July.
Mohamed and Aysha Bary said the county child welfare agency, which now has custody of the girl and developed the reconciliation plan, was allowing Rifqa to talk to a Florida pastor who had sheltered her after she ran away. The couple believe that contact was hurting their chance for reconciliation.
Gill denied on Tuesday the parents’ request, saying she recognized their frustrations but believed that the best course was to move ahead with counseling to heal the family.
The family alleges that Christian pastors helped her flee to Orlando, in July, and police in Columbus are investigating whether anyone broke the law helping her leave home. Police in Florida and Columbus found no evidence that the girl faced harm in Ohio.
Bary’s case has drawn national attention, especially among bloggers, with anti-Islam groups warning she could face death and some Muslim groups saying she’s being exploited by outsiders. Dozens of supporters of the girl rallied outside the courthouse this year before a hearing.
Rifqa, who turns 18 in August, wants the court to rule that a reunion is impossible and that it is not in her best interest to be returned to her native Sri Lanka.
“She wants to practice the Christian religion and believes she would be in danger if she practiced that religion at home,” said the teen’s lawyer, Angela Lloyd.
Bonnie Vangeloff, a court-appointed attorney who represents the girl’s rights as a child in foster care, told the judge the family is in deep need of counseling but that reconciliation is probably unlikely before the girl turns 18.
Tuesday’s hearing also touched on Rifqa’s immigration status. Her attorneys raised the issue in a recent court filing that noted federal law allows “an undocumented immigrant minor” to receive permanent resident status when placed in long-term foster care by a judge. In court, Lloyd confirmed that the girl is an illegal immigrant.
“Unlike her parents, if reconciliation fails, at 18 then she is without legal status,” Lloyd said.
The immigration status of the parents is unclear, although Lloyd said in court that the couple are “pursuing their own immigration relief.” Attorneys have been under an order not to talk about the case.