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Runaway Teen Convert Awaits Fate in Court

The fate of a 17-year-old girl who ran away from her Ohio home because she says she feared punishment for converting from Islam to Christianity could be decided in an Orlando courtroom Friday.

An Orlando judge was scheduled to hear arguments about whether Rifqa Bary should stay in state custody in Florida or be returned to her family in Columbus, Ohio.

The teenager disappeared last month and police used phone and computer records to track her to the Rev. Blake Lorenz, pastor of Orlando, Fla.-based Global Revolution Church, who she had met through an online Facebook prayer group.

The girl's family members, who originally are from Sri Lanka, say they have never threatened to harm her.

"We love her, we want her back, she is free to practice her religion, whatever she believes in, that's OK," her father, Mohamed Bary, told The Associated Press last week.

"What these people are trying to do is not right - I don't think any religion will teach to separate the kids from their parents," he said.

Columbus police also question the girl's claim of being in danger.

Mohamed Bary "comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter," said Sgt. Jerry Cupp, chief of the Columbus police missing persons bureau.

Police investigating the girl's July 19 disappearance tracked her to the Rev. Blake Lorenz, pastor of Orlando, Fla.-based Global Revolution Church, who called authorities Aug. 6 to say she was staying with them.

The family is originally from Sri Lanka and emigrated in 2000 to seek medical help for Rifqa, who had lost sight in her right eye when she fell and struck a toy airplane on a couch at home.

Rifqa, a high school junior in well-off suburban New Albany, had been questioning her faith for several months, her father said. She attended church with friends from school and later attended services at another church, Xenos Christian Fellowship, a megachurch that emphasizes small groups meeting at home.

After Rifqa proselytized with a Bible at school, Mohamed Bary said, the family asked her to stop because it wasn't an appropriate activity in school. They also told her she had an obligation to study her original faith first, before choosing another.

But Mohamed Bary says they never threatened to kill or harm the girl. "She is still my daughter," said Bary, 47, a jeweler.

The family says Rifqa was baptized a Christian without their knowledge this year in Columbus. Around the same time, the girl met Lorenz through an online Facebook prayer group.

Rifqa ran away without explanation or a note. She told WFTV in Florida that she hitchhiked to the Columbus bus station, then took a bus to Orlando. Her parents dispute that and say she must have had help, because hitchhiking from her suburban home would be nearly impossible and she didn't have enough money for the trip.

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