PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — An American couple detained in Qatar before being cleared in the death of their 8-year-old daughter attended a church service in Southern California where worshippers greeted them with a standing ovation.
Matthew and Grace Huang were called to the dais at the Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena shortly after the 9 a.m. service began. The couple stood in front of the congregation hugging their two surviving children amid sustained claps and cheers.
Matthew Huang briefly addressed the parishioners, saying he was thankful to be home and among friends.
"The situation the past two years was extremely difficult," he said. "It's taught us a lot about patience."
The Huangs gained international attention when Qatari authorities arrested them in January 2013 on charges of starving their African-born daughter, Gloria, to death.
The couple, who are of Asian descent, had adopted Gloria in Ghana when she was 4 years old, and are the parents of two other adopted, African-born children.
The Huangs spent nearly a year in jail and were convicted of child endangerment. An appeals court judge overturned their conviction last week and said they could leave Qatar.
Saying he didn't know whether to dance or weep, Senior Pastor Greg Waybright welcomed the Huangs back into the congregation.
"To have you at home is the greatest news, and the greatest Christmas present, that we could ever have," he said.
Congregant Frank Huber said the Huangs and their ordeal were often reference points during services over the past nearly two years.
"We've been praying for this day," Huber said.
Throughout the case, the family's representatives expressed concern that there were cultural misunderstandings underpinning the charges against the couple in a nation where Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are relatively rare.
An initial police report raised questions about why the couple would adopt children who did not share their "hereditary traits."
Prosecutors said the couple denied food to their daughter and locked her in her room at night. The Huangs said Gloria suffered from medical problems complicated by an eating disorder that was the result of her impoverished early years in Africa.
The Huangs spent several months behind bars before their case was heard for the first time in November 2013.
The couple and their children moved to Qatar in 2012 after Matthew Huang was hired to work as an engineer as part of preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Doha.
Waybright said the church would make a special offering collection next Sunday for money to help the Huangs get back on their feet.
Associated Press writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.