Rifqa Bary came to international attention in 2009 when, as a teenager, she ran away from her family home in Ohio fearing that her father wanted to kill her because she had converted from Islam to Christianity.
A difficult legal battle followed as she tried to stay away from her family and argue her case. At the time there was significant media speculation about whether her sense of peril was justified, and whether it was possible that 'honour killing' could happen in America.
Now 22, Rifqa has written her side of the story in her autobiography, Hiding in the Light: Why I risked everything to leave Islam and follow Jesus – a remarkable, gripping story and a challenging testimony from someone whose faith has not come cheap.
It's no understatement to say she's had an eventful life. Rifqa was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in a strict Muslim home and moved with her family to the US in 2000. As a child she was blinded in one eye in an accident, was sexually abused by a relative in Sri Lanka and beaten by her father and brother. She then experienced a radical conversion to Christ at the age of 12 and kept her faith hidden for four years. At 16, her parents found out and she ran away to Florida claiming that her father had threatened to kill her, which he later denied as well as the accusation of abuse.
Rifqa made her escape with the help of Christians she had connected with on Facebook. Although she had found what she was looking for spiritually, the difficulties didn't end after leaving home. She ended up in juvenile detention for a brief period and was then bounced between numerous foster homes. And before she had even graduated from high school she was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer and was told it was terminal.
She turned 18 before the legal case was completely resolved, essentially giving her the freedom to move on – even more so after doctors said she appeared to have been miraculously healed from cancer. Having taken a couple of years out after high school and worked as a youth worker in a church, she is now studying philosophy and politics at college and hopes to be a lawyer one day.
She spoke to Christian Today about the way that Christ has changed her life and how her faith has sustained her in the most desperate times.
Why did you decide to write the book now – did you want to set the record straight?
I look back to five/six years ago when [I left home] and I had a lot to offers to talk about it once the case closed... but I found myself very afraid. I look back and I realise I was really traumatised by what had happened and I needed time to heal. There was a lot of information that was construed in some way... people misunderstood some aspects, and so I really wanted to talk. My book has been my voice in expressing what happened behind closed doors.
There were a lot of accusations that I was exaggerating or that I was a dramatic person, a child. I wanted it to be clear that I am an abuse victim, and this wasn't an arbitrary decision to leave at 16, it was an entire life of oppression. I wanted my readers to understand that my faith was real and I wasn't brainwashed – that was another accusation. And I wanted to walk readers through how devout my parents were, to bring readers into the meat of the story and not just the 'sex'.
Can you describe your experience of Islam as a child?
I was a very devout Muslim child, I remember starting to fast during the month of Ramadan at age six. I memorised the Qur'an as early as age three or four. Islam was what I breathed. There was nothing in my life that didn't entail some aspect of Islam – from what I wore, to what I ate, to the prayer I prayed walking out the door. Everything was permeated by Islam.
It was a very abusive home. There were two things that really crushed me as a child: one was that I was sexually violated by an extended family member. Normally, in the US at least, if you sexually violate someone, you go to jail, there are consequences, the shame is put on you. But in my culture, from what I experienced, the shame is put on the victim. There's this really big deal about retaining honour in our family.
During the same year I was in an accident with my brother and my eye was blinded, and so it was another thing – I was seen as defiled now. My family, in order to retain our family honour, left our little country and went all the way to the US. They did seek out some medical attention [for my eye] but I knew, even as a child, that this was because of what had happened [with the abuse].
I just remember growing up very, very afraid of my father. There were instances when I was beaten physically, and it was common and not abnormal. I think I think it came with the culture, because of some aspects of what Islam teaches. I know some others would disagree, but watching my parents – they lived the doctrine of Islam, they lived what they believed.
What were your first impressions of Christianity when you moved to America?
Honestly, my first impression was disgust. What I had heard from my parents was that Christians were devils. I didn't understand, but I trusted them. I didn't understand the aspect of Jesus as a man being God, it just sounded like blasphemy.
But I think as the abuse increased, and I lived such a suffocating lifestyle, I was so desperate for freedom that I was willing to cross that boundary and search out something that could cost me my life. I was simply desperate for truth, it wasn't the scandal of it that appealed to me, it was truth itself.
So what made you decide to convert?
There was a girl in my middle school class who overcame all the social boundaries and invited me to church when I was 12. What she didn't understand was that months prior to her asking me, I had been beaten and I was suicidal; I remember thinking "If this is what life has to offer I don't want it." I was gouging my wrist, wanting to end my life.
But I had heard from someone that I could pray in English, and so I got on my knees and did the despicable – I mean this is worse than me committing a heinous crime in the eyes of my parents – praying to another God. And I said: "God, if you're real, if you're Allah, if you're Buddha, Jesus, whoever you are, show me the truth and I will follow you, I will give you my life."
Months later when Angela invited me, I really saw it as an answer from God. I didn't really understand what it meant, I just was hopeful that maybe I could search this out. And [going to the church service] had a profound impact on my life. I remember weeping and I had this experience where I felt as if God was breathing in my brokenness, and I was breathing in his grace and mercy and love. That was the day that that everything changed, where I felt the unconditional love of the Father.
That was kind of the pivotal point in my life – of looking at Christianity and seeing my friend Angela, and seeing the love and life that radiated from her, and looking at my family and the hate and the anger, and there was such a distinction. They were two different worlds.
What difference did Christ make to your life after that?
The biggest difference! Islam has taught always that it's all about the external – it's about doing, doing, doing, that's how you earn points in heaven (for lack of a better word). But Christianity was so focused on the internal – Jesus said if you lust in your heart you've already committed adultery... seeing that standard of holiness.
I found my heart changing. I had compassion for my father and brother, and as I prayed for them, love would grow in my heart. So where if I didn't have Christ I would be bitter and angry, Christ came in and showed me the mercy that He's offered me, and through that I'm able to offer that same mercy to my family and forgive them.
Did you find it easy to forgive your family or is it something you have to keep going back to?
Not easy at all. It has taken me half my life to be at that place where I am ready. And I think forgiveness is not a cookie cutter thing. There are some people who say "If you forgive your father, why don't you go back to your family?" You can forgive, but there are certain measures that I have to take for my safety and to continue spreading the gospel. I don't think it looks a certain way – I think it's an internal reality where you free them from revenge, and it's been a process.
I've prayed for them and that's changed my heart, but there are moments when get angry and I'm frustrated, because my life every day is affected by the brokenness of my family. There are certain things that I don't have because of my abusive father, and pain I have to walk through every day and heal from. But essentially that's drawn me closer to Christ and has given me a greater compassion for people. I have seen God take my shame and brokenness and turn it into something beautiful, but it doesn't come immediately.
How did it feel to be at the centre of the media storm when the news erupted after you left in 2009?
Oh my word, I was 17 years old, barely an adult, really a child. I was 16 when I left, 17 when the case erupted. I was already grieving my family and what had happened; I had gone through so much trauma. I had just come out of jail, I had left my family, the abuse that had led up to me leaving, and so I was really in survival mode. It was hard. At one point my parents gave my diaries to the press and they published them. There was just so much going on, and I was trying to find some stability.
Where did you find that stability?
On the external, I didn't. I moved eight times in a year – moving from foster family to foster family. There was nothing stable about my life but my faith. I found God as my Father and comfort. During that year it was such a tumultuous year where everything around me was shaking, I didn't know who to trust and there were so many people coming in and out of my life, but I found my greatest comfort and hope and peace in Jesus and that was my stability, that's how I survived that year.
Having survived everything else, what was your reaction when you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?
My first response was laughter, because I felt so strongly that I was supposed to live. At the same time, these people were telling me I'm dying and that my body was decaying and I was so very sick. I laughed because I didn't believe it, I was in complete denial. And then it was the stages of grief – first denial, and then accepting and embracing that this could be a reality.
That marker in my life has been something that has pointed me to eternity, realising that this is not what I'm here for. I'm here for Jesus and the reality is that I'm not living for myself, there's an eternal hope and eternal glory, where all of the pain that I've suffered will end one day when I see Him face to face. It's made me long for heaven a lot, just because there's been so much pain in my life, and I don't get justice here.
That time also made me ask the question 'Is it worth it?' And the answer was yes; it has been 'yes' every time. And not anything that I've conjured up on my own, but because Christ has revealed himself to me as worthy of everything. Worthy of leaving my family behind, the unknown future, the pain, the gruesome reality of sharing this story over and over again. I have met him in that place of weakness countless times.
And how is your health now?
It is an amazing story. I had embraced the idea of possibly dying and was ready whatever would come my way. Over six months ago I had a doctor's appointment, and he looked at all the paperwork from that time period and did some new testing, and he was just in awe. He took off his glasses, stared at me bewildered and said: "I have no idea why you're sitting in front of me, other than to say that it's a miracle." There are no case studies that go past two years for the kind of cancer I had. And the crazy part is that I stopped the chemotherapy two months in. I really felt strongly that that was the right decision. They have a year-long treatment programme, but even with the best treatment they said I wouldn't make it. I was given less than a year left to live and it's five years later and I'm cancer free.
Yours is an amazing story but it must be exhausting having to share it repeatedly – why did you decide that you wanted to share it?
I look at what the gospel asks, and it's loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself. I can't be silent because I realise there are so many people with similar stories to mine. I realise that there's a gem in my story that's relevant to what's happening in the world right now, and to women specifically. And if I am to be silent for my own gain... I can't do that because God has given me so much, and I feel a calling to give back, and if that means sharing my story even though it hurts, I know that God will use it for his glory. I really feel that my voice is the voice of many, many women out there. My hope is that it will stir them to say yes to Christ, and say yes to freedom.
Have you been able to engage with other Muslims, and particularly other women in similar situations?
I've been really undercover for the past five years, and this is the first time that I've gone public, it's only the first month. So far through Facebook I've gotten a lot of curiosity, and sometimes other, pretty hostile messages, but I've connected with people like Nabeel Quereshi [author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus] and Naghmeh Abedini [wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran]. I just saw Naghmeh at a conference and we grabbed each other and just melted into each other's arms, and I cried. There's something about suffering for the gospel and it costing us something where I think it binds hearts together. So I feel like she's a long-lost sister, because of what she's gone through. And Nabeel feels like a long-lost brother, we can really relate to what it has cost us and the cross that God has called us to carry with regard to our family.
Christians can sometimes be afraid about talking to Muslims about Jesus – what would you say to them?
They shouldn't be. Underneath the surface of aggressiveness or devotion, the cry of all of our hearts is to worship something. I would challenge Christians to change their perspective on how they see Muslims, because the same way that they worship Allah and are so devoted – what if Jesus Christ grabs a hold of their heart? What could happen? Who could the next revivalist be?
I think we have got to get outside of ourselves and our fear because these are lives at stake, these are eternal souls whom Jesus has poured out his life for. The gospel calls us to lay down our lives, and if that looks like crucifying our fear and talking to them. How worth it is that, if that's what Christ is calling us to do?
I also want to encourage those who are afraid, that God can instil courage and boldness where we lack it and he will meet us. And I would encourage Christians to pray for Muslims and I've found that I feel God's compassion for them. God can use men and women in being a light, and essentially showing the love of Christ, and I think that can be very compelling to a Muslim – more than any argument or critique of Islam. There's a place for that, but I've seen the love that we have to offer in Christ being life changing.
You have had to give up a lot to follow Christ, how do you find being cut off from your family and your culture?
It is painful, because our culture and family are a part of the very core of our being. I mean I've had curry half my life and now it's American food! I have had to adopt a different culture, different families in the church and it's never the same. But where I have taken one step towards Jesus, he has taken a hundred back towards me. Every place where I have given up something, I have gained in Christ more than I ever would have dreamed.
Given all that you've experienced, do you ever find that you're afraid now?
There's a moment in the jail cell that I write about in the book where I come face to face with the reality of death and the fear of dying and I remember God meeting me in that place and he said: "Will you sing to me?" So I started singing, and I remember the presence of God coming, and realising that my life is His... and I haven't stopped singing since. I don't live in terror or fear because every single day is His, and he's the one who has the final say.
Hiding in the Light (WaterBrook Press) was released in the US in May, and comes out in the UK this week.