By Bob Paulson | First Published: July 21, 2015
Rifqa Bary, a 16-year-old convert from Islam to Christianity, lay shivering on a thin jail cell mattress. Across the cell sat a smelly toilet and a filthy drinking fountain with something green growing on it. Bright lights blazed throughout the long night. Rifqa had already been threatened with death because of her faith in Christ, and now thoughts of suffering for Christ filled her mind. It is an honor to suffer for Him, she told herself repeatedly—to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. One might assume that Rifqa’s cell was in some faraway Middle Eastern prison. No. This was Orlando, Fla.
Rifqa was born to a Muslim couple in the island nation of Sri Lanka. Her father was a gemstone dealer who traveled much of the time. Her relatively happy early years began to deteriorate through two life-changing incidents. First, when Rifqa was 6, a toy airplane pierced her right eye and took its sight. Rifqa recounts in her book Hiding in the Light: Why I Risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus that after the accident, her family became cold and impatient toward her, as if she were damaged goods.
A year or two later, a relative sexually violated Rifqa. As was typical in her culture, the shame of that man’s crime fell on her as the victim, not on him as the perpetrator. Somehow, although the assault was never made public, little Rifqa had brought disgrace to her family. Two weeks later, her father announced that the family was leaving Sri Lanka and moving to the United States.
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Over the next few years, living first in New York and then in Columbus, Ohio, Rifqa’s parents, especially her father, became increasingly abusive. Rifqa could never predict when her father’s anger might explode and his hand would fly. With an oppressive home and no close friends, she sank into a depression that by age 12 drove her to consider suicide.
Rifqa tried to follow her family’s Muslim faith, reciting the prescribed prayers and memorizing the Quran in Arabic, which she did not understand.
“In Islam, what I experienced was fear and punishment,” she told Decision. “Those are the two motivations in worshiping Allah.”
Rifqa had learned that Christians pray to their God in their own language. But she wasn’t sure who the true God really was. In her despair, she cried out:
“God, if You are real, show me who You really are, and I will follow You.”
Soon after, a girl named Angela approached her at school. Rifqa had noticed her before and had been drawn to Angela’s kindness.
“Are you a Christian?” Angela asked, dispensing with trivialities.
“Yes, I am,” Rifqa lied.
“Great!” Angela said. “Do you want to go to church with me?”
The two met after school to talk more, and Rifqa admitted that no, she was not a Christian. She poured out her heart to Angela about her home situation. And although she feared the potential consequences, she wondered if attending Angela’s church might be how God would show Himself to her. She agreed to go.
For Rifqa, that Friday evening service was overwhelming: the heartfelt praise, the warmth of the people, the message that ended with an invitation to receive Jesus Christ—it was beyond words.
Although Rifqa had no frame of reference to fully comprehend all she had heard, she knew the choice before her meant life or death. She stepped into the aisle, dropped to her knees and sobbed as she declared that she believed in Jesus and would follow Him for the rest of her life.
For four years, it would be a double life. She pored over the Bible, asked questions of other believers and began to learn how to follow Jesus. But she hid her faith from her family even as she became bold about witnessing at school and other places. It was only a matter of time before her parents found out.
“Are you a Christian?!” her father screamed at her one night. He brandished her computer as if it were a weapon and yelled: “If you are a Christian, I am going to kill you! Do you understand?”
Rifqa’s silence provided the answer. Her dad decided to give her a few days to think about it while he went on a business trip. But then, somehow, people at the local mosque found out, and Rifqa’s time was up. Her dad cut short his trip; he would be arriving home the following day to deal with her.
Desperate, Rifqa reached out to friends and acquaintances for help. As the sun rose Sunday, July 19, 2009, the 16-year-old fled from her Ohio home, first to a local church and then by bus to Orlando, Fla., where two Facebook friends, Pastor Blake Lorenz and his wife, Beverly, had offered to take her in.
Rifqa’s freedom was short-lived. Because she was a runaway under 18, the Lorenzes and others who had helped her escape were in danger of criminal prosecution, and Rifqa knew she must turn herself in.
And so she found herself in an Orlando jail, fearing for her life but determined to follow Jesus to death if need be.
For more than a year, her case played out in Ohio and Florida courts. Rifqa was shuffled through foster and group homes in both states, but authorities never forced her to return to her family. Her struggle became even more difficult when she was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery and chemotherapy.
But on Aug. 10, 2010, Rifqa turned 18, and her legal ordeal was over. She was granted a green card and could choose to live on her own, how and where she wanted.
Even today, that location is known only to a few.
Brian Williams, one of the courageous friends who helped Rifqa to grow in Christ and then to flee, told Decision he sees a lesson in her life for other believers:
“As simple as this may sound,” he said, “I would say that Jesus is truly satisfying. Rifqa lost literally everything: her family, her friends, her home, her health. Yet she was satisfied because of Jesus. No matter what you lose in this life, if you have Christ, you have it all.”
During the past five years, Rifqa has served as a youth leader and also done mission work in India. She is attending college, majoring in philosophy and political studies. And she is still determined to live for the Lord Jesus.
“What amazed me about Jesus is that He has taken on our sin and that salvation is not by works,” Rifqa says. “I can never earn the love of God; it is a gift freely given. I have been gripped by the Gospel. My heart has been won over by the love of Christ, and I can’t ever go back.” D ©2015 BGEA