It sounds like a love story that Scheherazade might have included in her Arabian Nights.
Meriam Al Khalifa, 19, a member of Bahrain’s royal family, is applying to stay in the United States, after eloping from her country in disguise with a U.S. Marine.
But like any great love story, this one has its obstacles. A San Diego judge on Monday refused to dismiss charges of illegally entering the United States against Al Khalifa, preventing her from applying for permanent residency in the United States without also seeking political asylum.
Now the princess has a year to apply for asylum. She plans to do so, arguing that she faces extreme persecution for marrying a non-Muslim if she returns to her country.
“I did the worst thing possible in my country, to fall in love with a non-Muslim,” she has said. “To make it even worse, he’s an American.”
The threat of persecution is real, her attorney, Jan Joseph Behar, told reporters. “I can guarantee you it is not just ‘Daddy is mad at me,’” he said after the hearing.
The hearing was closed to the public and news media, but Behar described immigration Judge Ignacio Fernandez’s ruling.
Against Her Family’s Wishes
Al Khalifa’s family in Bahrain wants her back home.
Bahraini royals rarely marry outside the family circle. They also belong to Islam’s mainstream Sunni sect. Islam forbids Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, though Muslim men can marry outside their faith. Al Khalifa’s husband, Pfc. Jason Johnson, 25, is not Muslim.
The State Department also wants her deported, despite her claim that she could be persecuted if she returns.
Al Khalifa’s relatives have said they are prepared to forgive her transgression, a Bahraini government official said Saturday.
“Her family loves her and is really hoping that she will return home,” an Information Ministry official said. “She made a mistake and they are willing to forgive her.”
The official said Al Khalifa would not be harmed.
There has been no word though, on whether Al Khalifa’s husband would be welcome.
Al Khalifa has won support from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who urged U.S. immigration officials in a letter Thursday to allow her to remain in the country.
The princess’ father is believed to be a cousin of Bahrain’s head of state, Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Sneaking Out, Across the World
Al Khalifa met Johnson last year at a mall in the Bahraini capital of Manama, where he was assigned to a security unit.
When Al Khalifa’s parents found out about the relationship, her mother told her to end it, she told ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America.
Al Khalifa complied, but Johnson said when he got the message, “I didn’t think it was over with. I knew we’d find a way to continue our relationship.”
As his deployment was ending late last year, he forged U.S. military documents and a set of orders that allowed her to go through customs in her country without her family knowing, he said.
He said he also dressed Al Khalifa in baggy cargo pants, a T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap to get her to the United States on a commercial airplane. But immigration officials in Chicago discovered the ruse after being alerted by her family.
The Marine Corps demoted Johnson from lance corporal to private first class and assigned him extra duty. The couple, who were married in Las Vegas, currently live on the Camp Pendleton military base, north of San Diego.
Bahrain is a small island nation off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia that also is the regional base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.