Ohio Christian convert fights to stay in US

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A teenage girl who converted to Christianity and ran away from home is being blocked by her Muslim parents from fighting the possibility of deportation, her attorney said to a judge Monday in an ongoing custody dispute.

Rifqa Bary, 17, who fled home last year and stayed with a Florida minister whom she met on Facebook, is an illegal immigrant and does not want to return to her native Sri Lanka because she fears being harmed or killed by Muslim extremists.

Her attorney, Angela Lloyd, asked a judge to sign an order stating that reunification with her parents is not possible by her 18th birthday in August.

The order would allow Bary, who is in foster care, to apply for special immigration status without her parents’ consent.

Omar Tarazi, an attorney for the parents, objected, telling the judge that he had been unaware of this latest maneuver by Bary’s attorney to apply to an immigration court. He said the parents previously filed an immigration application for the whole family.

Franklin County Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Gill declined to issue the order without first holding a hearing next month. She also declined to remove a gag order that prevents attorneys from discussing the case publicly.

Bary and her parents, Mohamed and Aysha Bary, have agreed to follow a counseling plan drawn up by a county child welfare agency to try to resolve the family’s conflict. It requires both sides to work with individual counselors and to try to attend joint counseling.

But a face-to-face meeting remains unlikely any time soon.

Jim Zorn, a children’s services attorney, said to the judge that Bary continues to believe that a reconciliation with her parents is impossible. Bary’s counselor has indicated that contact with her parents would be premature, he said.

Bary has also complained that her parents have not responded to an emotional letter sent through a counselor that explains why their relationship broke down, Lloyd said.

The letter was more like a list of 20 questions that felt like a backdoor interrogation prepared by attorneys, Tarazi said. It included
questions such as, “Why don’t I have happy memories of my childhood?” he said.

The parents want to respond but also want assurances that Bary’s attorneys are not interfering with the process, Tarazi said.

Judge Gill ordered both attorneys to stay away from the counselors.

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.

The girl ran away last July, saying she couldn’t stay with her parents because she feared for her life for converting to Christianity. Authorities found no evidence that she faced harm in Ohio.

Police in Columbus continue to investigate whether anyone broke the law by helping Bary run away.

Bary’s father alleges a Columbus minister drove her to a Greyhound station where she received a bus ticket and took a bus to Orlando. There, she stayed with a minister and his wife for about two weeks before the state returned her to Ohio.