I remember hearing about her on the news. A teenager fleeing her Muslim parents because of a fear of retaliation because she was a Christian. In America. In the 21st century.
Rifqa Bary was born into a Muslim family in Sri Lanka, where she remembers simple pleasures and happy parents, but also confusion over how she was sometimes treated.
It was during her time in Sri Lanka that Rifqa first felt the Presence. “It pressed in closer and closer…But I wasn’t scared. I felt strangely protected, cherished, even loved…I knew Someone was there…”
Her traveling father was in America often, and moved the family there when she was around eight years old. The shock of 9/11 came shortly after the family made their home in NYC. Not long after, young Rifqa went to her neighbor’s house and joined their family prayer meeting. Until she realized they were praying to Jesus. She hurried home in the middle of the prayer, fearful of what her parents would say, shaken up at her close encounter with Christians. Her neighbor friend was a Christian?
Her father moved the family to Ohio, where Rifqa sometimes again found herself in the home of Christians. They seemed so peaceful. Their home lives were much happier than Rifqa’s, whose parents had grown more abusive and older brother more tormenting. A girl at school befriended Rifqa and invited her to a church event. Rifqa jumped at the chance, lying to her parents about her absence that night.
But at church she felt it again. That Presence! This was what she had been looking for! Was peace really to be found in Christianity—in Jesus? Rifqa walked down the aisle and prayed with a pastor, crying her heart out.
A Double Life
As the tension in her home grew, so did her double life. Since Rifqa had to lie to her parents every time she went to a Christian event, her church attendance was sporadic. New friends had encoded phone conversations about her newfound faith. Her Christian friend at school patiently answered her questions and gave her a Bible small enough to be easily hidden.
Rifqa participated in her family’s required Islamic prayers with less and less heart. Her parents enrolled her in an Islamic summer class, trying desperately to retain what Islam she had left in her.
But she had something greater than Islam now. While still in high school, Rifqa was secretly baptized in a river not far from their house, with only a few witnesses. There would be no turning back.
Change of Plans
She never knew how they found out.
She had had many close calls, such as when she felt a prompting to move her Bible out of its hiding place in her backpack. A few hours later, her father rummaged all through her backpack unannounced, looking for a pencil.
Then one day her father came storming into her room, shouting, asking if she was a Christian, if she’d been baptized. Rifqa was silent. He held her laptop in the air, as if he would smash it over her head. Rifqa didn’t doubt that he would.
But he didn’t. He put her laptop down, told her to drop these Christian ideas…or…or…Rifqa wasn’t sure. An asylum, her mother threatened. “I’ll kill you,” her father said.
Then he left on another trip. Rifqa went to a prayer meeting, but afterward, she found out her father was coming home early—something he’d never done—because the mosque had told him to deal with her. He would be home on Sunday.
Her father on his way home and the rest of her family sleeping, Rifqa started to panic. She was on her way to a Sri Lankan Islamic asylum—or worse. Praying for a way out or strength to face what was coming, Rifqa tried to call a trusted friend, but he didn’t answer. Then she checked Facebook, and a Facebook friend she had never met in person had messaged her, reaching out.
“Can you call me?” Rifqa messaged back. And soon she was pouring out her heart to a Christian she had never met in Florida.
Within a few days, through a last-minute plan, Rifqa was welcomed into that Florida home.
She had done it. She had left. She was safe.
Not Over Yet
But she had left so much behind—the only home and family she had ever known, abusive as it had been. She took only her laptop, cell phone and charger, Bible, and the clothes on her back. She had left everything else behind. And her precious baby brother, still living with her unpredictable family. Still living in Islam.
Rifqa’s story wasn’t over when she came to Blake and Beverly’s house in Florida. The ensuing legal battle, resulting in the news coverage I had seen, continued for months. Rifqa was first in a juvenile detention facility, then went through many foster homes. She endured cancer treatment. With her 18th birthday, she was free from court and from her family, though she still lives in an undisclosed location for her own protection.
So she shares her story—so far—with us. One day we will hear the rest.
“I pray that my story testifies to the power of God’s prevailing against the forces of darkness… And if for no other reason, I deem it a privilege to carry my cross with all men and women across the globe who have paid and are paying a high price for declaring Jesus as Lord… Wherever the church has lost this passion and fervor may stories like mine disturb the cobwebs that limit believers’ faith to a menu selection—when Jesus is truly the feast Himself.” – Rifqa Bary