NEW YORK — At age 12, the concerns of most American children usually revolve around schoolyard politics and the awkwardness of becoming a teenager, but for Rifqa Bary, a young girl in Ohio, a life-changing decision to secretly convert to Christianity completely consumed her world and left her living in constant fear.
"I was terrified of my parents finding out, and for four years I hid my faith and my friends were afraid for me," Bary, now 22, told The Christian Post on Wednesday, a day after the release of her new memoir, Hiding in the Light: Why I risked Everything to Leave Islam and Follow Jesus.
When Bary was 8, her family relocated from Sri Lanka, an Island near southeast India to the U.S., and first settled in Ohio. It was two devastating ordeals suffered by Bary that caused her family to flee her homeland and that would, in essence, lead to her leaving Islam for good.
"... I grew up on a tiny island under India named Sri Lanka and grew up in an extremely devout and strict home," she said. "There were really two events that happened that caused the move to occur. One was I was blinded in my right eye by my brother, accidentally, and then the other was I was sexually violated by an extended family member."
Instead of garnering sympathy and support from her family, Bary's eye accident and sexual abuse brought shame and judgment upon her family which she said is not unusual under Islam.
"In our culture in America, when someone is abused it is the one that is abusing that is punished and there are consequences. Yet, in my Islamic culture, the victim is the one where the shame is put on them," Bary explained. "I use this quote, I was half seen as a 'blind picture of imperfection.' So in my family, they were really serious about maintaining our family image, and so we moved completely to run from the shame that could potentially harm our family."
The Ohio schoolgirl was first introduced to Christianity when a friend in middle school invited her to church.
"... She had no idea that months prior I had gotten on my knees after being physically beaten and I was at the stage where I was considering suicide at 12," she recalled.
"I remember thinking 'if this is what life has to offer, I don't want it.' I was just totally broken and I had prayed 'God, if you are real, show me who you are and I'll follow you; if you're Allah, Buddha or Jesus I just want to know truth.' And so I pray this prayer and months later I meet her and she invites me to go to church."
Despite living in the confines of a very strict Muslim home, Bary managed to sneak in a Bible and secretly read it whenever possible.
"... When my parents would go to sleep I would stay up in the bathroom and read, and so there was a serious feeling of threat that I felt," she shared.
For Bary, the overwhelming fear and risk of potentially dying as part of an honor killing if she were to be caught was worth it because the story of Jesus was so appealing.
"It was love," said Bary. "That is the distinction that I can see even today, years later. In Islam, from what I experienced, there was fear and a lot of anger. You obey Allah because you are afraid of being punished. And as a Christian we obey because we love God."
In 2009, Bary's story made international headlines and sparked controversy when it was revealed that at age 16, she had fled her family's New Albany home after her parents discovered her conversion to Christianity, and feared that her father would kill her.
She turned herself into police after being tracked down at the home of Florida-based pastor Rev. Blake Lorenz of the Global Revolution Church. The two had met via a Facebook prayer group and Lorenz allowed her to seek refuge at his home.
After spending a few days at a juvenile detention facility and following multiple court hearings, Bary was placed in foster homes in Ohio until she turned 18. It was there that she was diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer, which nearly cost her her life.
"Growing up I was voiceless and I feel like this book is my voice," she said.
Bary hasn't had any contact with her family and although she still lives in fear, she has no regrets about leaving Islam.
"I would do it all again because it has made me who I am and I have a greater sense of compassion," she said. "... I love my family and I desperately want them to see and experience the freedom and mercy I have found in Jesus, and I forgive them."
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