Although we should consider all parties innocent until proven guilty, the most likely culprit in the case of Rifqa Bary, the 17 year-old who ran away from her Ohio home in fear of her father, is the Xenos cult, a group that specifically emphasizes Biblical verses where Jesus tells the disciples to leave their family, disown their loved ones. Xenos tears families apart.
Anyone watching the blogosphere now knows Rifqa Bary. Born Muslim, she converted to Christianity and fled her home in New Albany, Ohio and went to Orlando, Florida to the home of a pastor she met on Facebook. This video surfaced on August 10th, Rifqa’s 17th birthday, which began the the cacophony:
There were immediately two competing narratives. Rifqa’s attorney John Stemberger asserts that Rifqa suffered a history of physical and sexual abuse, and she is now fighting for her life. Anti-Muslim bloggers like Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch immediately jumped into the fray. In this narrative, an extremely devout Muslim family from a radical Ohio mosque is trying to fly its apostate daughter back to Sri Lanka for an “honor killing.”
The Bary family insists that they’ve never made any such threats, that the girl is free to practice any religion, and they just want their family whole again. In this narrative, a cult of Evangelical Christians used the Internet to brainwash her into leaving her religion and her family and move to Florida.
On the Evangelical side, this is an opportunity to demonize Islam, and the girl is the frosting that makes the guano palatable. On the Muslim side, the focus is on defending Islam, and there’s little regard for the details of the case. But I found serious problems with both narratives – and I’ve found something few others are talking about.
The first thing that was clear was that Rifqa learned about “honor killings” from Christians not from Muslims. Periodically in the video, when she’s flustered, she looks over to someone off camera. This is a sign when someone has been coached. They seek visual confirmation by making eye contact. At the five minute mark she says, “It’s in the Quran.” Which it’s not, but then she looks off camera and says, “You can, like, give them knowledge about it.” She gestures, and a man answers unintelligibly. Then she says to the reporter, “He really will explain it and break it down. They have to do this!” Who ever that man is, he is the coach. And we know it’s not the pastor because he’s holding her, but I’m certain he had a hand in it. He’s quoted as having said, “These are the last days, these are the end times, and this conflict between Islam and Christianity is going to grow greater. This conflict between good and evil is going to grow greater.” But if this is her religion, her upbringing, her life, she would be fluent in its details. She wouldn’t need someone else to explain it for her.
But that’s not enough. Blake Lorenz had only had her for a few weeks in Florida. That’s time for coaching, but not for brainwashing. So, I looked to her church activity in Ohio. Only a few articles briefly mention that she attended a church called the Xenos Christian Fellowship. A little Googling on this group immediately brings the whole picture into view. Message boards and articles about the Xenos Fellowship are filled with comments about the group’s cultish tendencies, specifically its manipulative efforts to isolate people from their friends and family.
“Xenos” means “Alien”, that is, the members of the Church, called “Xenoids,” should be aliens in this world, seeking only their home in Heaven. Ex-Xenoids speak of years of rigid social control and peer pressure before they could get out and ostracism once they left. Stories emerge of “Leaders” running a “Ministry House” where groups of older members live together and host “Home Church” to “Cell Groups” of high school and junior high-aged members. The group takes 13 and 14 year old girls out on “Bible Study” camping retreats with college-aged boys.
Ex-leaders describe a community where adults and youth are discouraged from socializing outside the fold without bringing another Xenoid along. This is a community where leaders conspire to orchestrate the romantic relationships of members by pairing “workers” together and breaking off “fringe” members. Others describe losing loved ones to the Church, their siblings, or children or even spouses being so engrossed in the Church they abandon all other ties. They describe the Church as preying on confused teenagers, exploiting their weaknesses and then jumping in to “save” them. Even worse, they have on staff an on call psychologist to keep people in line.
Annemarie Smith, creator of Parents Against Xenos calls the Church the “Xenos Cult”, and their leader, “The Devil Man.” At her blog she describes her son’s history with the Xenos Cult, which is not at all unlike Rifqa’s story. Her son Tom, like Rifqa, was an honor roll student. A charismatic over-achiever. But like Rifqa he was relatively new to the area, and needed friends. Members seek out candidates with family problems, or who just don’t fit in somehow. Just as Muhammad describes his daughter, Annemarie described Tom as “speaking as if reading from a script.” Like Rifqa he was baptised in his new religion. He told his family that he did not feel as connected to them as to his new Church, and he could not have relationships that were not centered around God. So complete was the group’s control over Tom that he called to threaten her into shutting down her website. But she continued in good faith, hoping that her son would come around. The leader then accused her of carrying on a “terror campaign” when she stood outside the Church’s meetings with signs saying, “I want my son back.” In her crusade against the Xenos Cult, Annemarie has pulled many from the flock, but not Tom.
Let me be clear. I subscribe to a principle which is as Islamic as it is American, that the accused be considered innocent until proven guilty. I consider the father innocent of the allegations of abuse until I see evidence. Similarly, I consider the pastor innocent of the allegations of brainwashing until I see evidence. I believe that this is most likely what happened to Rifqa. The flavor is different, but the results are the same.
Rifqa and her attorney, John Stemberger describe her family as “extremely devout” and try to connect the family with terrorism in the community. The Muslim response has been that Muhammad is not very devout. His daughter was a cheerleader, and his son drinks beer and parties.
This is a fundamentally problematic argument. This argument concedes that devout Muslims are violent and throws the Bary family under the bus to save Islam from controversy. If you want to jump to the defense of Islam, just link people to the hundreds of scholars who confirm that the death penalty for apostasy comes from a time in history when apostasy was synonymous with treason. It has no place in the modern world. There is no compulsion in religion. Islam is not on trial here. We are talking about a specific person. And specific people are capable of murder. We cannot allow this to be an argument about Islam, but instead should stand up for justice.
The family insists that they’ve never made any threats. Character witnesses from among the family’s friends and neighbors confirm that they are not as they are being portrayed. Sergeant Jerry Cupp of the Columbus Police Department told the Associated Press that Bary “comes across to me as a loving, caring, worried father about the whereabouts and the health of his daughter,” and police say they have found no evidense of abuse. But this does not support the allegation that Blake Lorenz brainwashed and kidnapped the girl into an Evangelical cult. Screenshots from Rifqa’s Myspace show her proclaiming “JC” as her savior in 2007, long before she met Blake Lorenz. He may be a charlatan who is enjoying his moment in the spotlight.
I believe the most likely culprit here is the Xenos Cult, a group that specifically emphasizes Biblical verses where Jesus tells the disciples to leave their family, disown their loved ones. Xenos tears families apart.
As Muslims, we must suspend judgment, because if we deny the facts, and we bunker down in defense of Islam, and we’re wrong, we will have lost all credibility. The Truth will out. A judge ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the abuse allegations, while Rifqa is staying with a temporary guardian in Florida until the next hearing scheduled for September 3rd. If any of these allegations are true, the Facebook records will show it. We must stand in defense of the girl, because Rifqa is the victim in any scenario.
Davi Barker is a California-based writer. An unedited version of this article previously appeared at Examiner.com