COLUMBUS, Ohio – A judge urged a Ohio couple to stick with counseling toward a reconciliation with their teenage daughter, who ran away to Florida last year claiming she would be harmed for converting from Islam to Christianity.
Rifqa Bary's parents have denied their daughter's claim and had asked juvenile court Judge Elizabeth Gill to scrap a deal reached in January that includes counseling as part of a reunion effort.
Mohamed and Aysha Bary said the county child welfare agency, which now has custody of the girl and developed the reconciliation plan, was allowing Rifqa Bary to talk to a Florida pastor who had sheltered her after she ran away.
The couple believe that contact was hurting their chance for reconciliation.
Gill on Tuesday denied the parents' request, saying she recognized their frustrations but believed that the best course was to move ahead with counseling to heal the family.
"The only individuals that are going to be able to repair it are the three of you, with professional help," Gill said, addressing the parents and their daughter, who sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.
The family alleges that Christian pastors helped her flee to Orlando, Florida, in July, and police in Columbus are investigating whether anyone broke the law helping her leave home. Police in Florida and Columbus found no evidence that the girl faced harm in Ohio.
A few people describing themselves as Christian supporters of the girl who said they didn't know her personally attended Tuesday's hearing, including retiree Don Berger, 70, of Columbus.
"Children's services and the court system need to protect her," Berger said.
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. Dozens of supporters of the girl rallied outside the courthouse this year before a hearing.
Earlier at Tuesday's hearing, the parents' attorney, Omar Tarazi, said the mother and father still "want a reasonable, good-faith chance for reconciliation" but recognize that time is running out.
"If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't," Tarazi said.
Rifqa Bary, who turns 18 in August, wants the court to rule that a reunion is impossible and that it is not in her best interest to be returned to her native Sri Lanka.
"She wants to practice the Christian religion and believes she would be in danger if she practiced that religion at home," said the teen's lawyer, Angela Lloyd. Noting that her parents want to back out of the January deal, she said their "actions continue to reinforce that."
Bonnie Vangeloff, a court-appointed attorney who represents the girl's rights as a child in foster care, told the judge the family is in deep need of counseling but that reconciliation is probably unlikely before the girl turns 18.
Tuesday's hearing also touched on Bary's immigration status. Her attorneys raised the issue in a recent court filing that noted federal law allows "an undocumented immigrant minor" to receive permanent resident status when placed in long-term foster care by a judge. In court, Lloyd confirmed that the girl is an illegal immigrant.
"Unlike her parents, if reconciliation fails, at 18 then she is without legal status," Lloyd said.
The immigration status of the parents is unclear, although Lloyd said in court that the couple are "pursuing their own immigration relief." Attorneys have been under an order not to talk about the case.