An American teen who fled from her family when they learned of her Christian faith hopes her published story will inspire women who are seeking freedom
Rifqa Bary's family moved from Sri Lanka to America in 2000, seemingly to provide her medical help after her right eye was blinded by an accident with a metal toy airplane.
After recovering from a prolonged custody battle, Rifqa published a book in 2015 that reveals the move to America was to escape the 'dishonour' of her molestation by an extended family member.
Rifqa writes that in some cultures "...the shame is not attached to the abuser; it is cast on the victim. My mere presence and appearance were a stain against the most important thing of all — our family honour."
In their new home in Ohio, Rifqa gave herself completely to her family's religion hoping for freedom and her father's approval.
She told CBN TV that by age 12, "It got to the point where I didn't want [this religion] anymore because [love] wasn't there. I never have heard my father say I love you, or hug me, and I was so afraid of him."
She always wanted freedom, but says that instead "I felt like I was caged and suffocating in rules and I wanted out."
A year later, she recalls, "One young brave woman in junior high had the courage to just ask me, 'Come to church with me'.
"After her invitation I went and had a life-changing encounter where I experienced the love of God that captured my spirit and left me changed."
Rifqa shares in a 2009 YouTube video "I thought that if your parents are Christians then you are a Christian... I had no idea that Jesus died for my sins... [so that] death has no sting."
At that church service, she states, "I felt nothing but this great radical love that says 'You are mine'. I didn't know what sin or repentance meant then. A couple of months later I wept before the Lord (Jesus) and truly repented of my sins."
"Ever since then it has been the best journey."
Initially she kept her faith hidden: "I would hide my Bible and I would go out to prayer meetings when my parents did not know."
By the fourth year, she says, "It got to the point where it couldn't be hidden anymore. My father approached me and told me what the consequences would be, which would be death.
"I feared for my life. I did not think I would be alive the next day. I did not plan on running away, I planned on giving my life for Jesus."
Her father issued her an ultimatum, giving her a couple of days until she "had to turn".
When the family's religious community found out, Rifqa says there was no alternative but to flee.
"In the same way that my family left Sri Lanka to honour our image," Rifqa says, "now I have done the despicable. This is the ultimate shame for my family – that I pray to another God and have committed myself especially to Jesus."
A concerned parent of a school friend contacted Rifqa on Facebook and helped her escape to another state.
"I wrote a letter to my family: 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour. I refuse to deny Him. I pray and hope that you will find His mercy and forgiveness."
On the two-day bus ride she says God sustained her though she had no food or water.
Psalm chapter 68 verse 5 comforted her with these words "He is a Father to the fatherless and a defender of the widow."
"To this day I am so grateful for God's hand in my life," she says.
Her family's year-long custody battle ended when she turned 18 in 2011, but not before it made international headlines.
She was shuttled between many foster homes and even jailed for a few months.
Rifqa now studies philosophy and politics and says she is not afraid about the future.
While in jail during the court case, she remembers, "I was sitting there weeping, and God just came to me and said, 'Will you sing to me?'
"There was something in that moment when I starting singing and realised that there's nothing that men can do to me.
"They can kill my body, they can take my body, but they can't have my soul ... I started singing and I haven't stopped, knowing that God is worthy of everything.
"I have such a heart for justice and people in similar situations like mine so I don't know what that is going to look like in the future, but I am studying philosophy and am really hoping I get to go to law school one day."•