After James Foley's beheading by the Islamic State militant group two months ago, the American's Catholic background made headlines.
But in a massive, 5,000-word story Sunday — an absolutely riveting piece of journalism overall — The New York Times reported that Foley converted to Islam soon after he was taken hostage.
The front-page story quoted 19-year-old Jejoen Bontinck of Belgium — identified as "a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley":
Mr. Foley converted to Islam soon after his capture and adopted the name Abu Hamza, Mr. Bontinck said. (His conversion was confirmed by three other recently released hostages, as well as by his former employer.)
“I recited the Quran with him,” Mr. Bontinck said. “Most people would say, ‘Let’s convert so that we can get better treatment.’ But in his case, I think it was sincere.”
Former hostages said that a majority of the Western prisoners had converted during their difficult captivity. Among them was Mr. (Peter) Kassig, who adopted the name Abdul-Rahman, according to his family, who learned of his conversion in a letter smuggled out of the prison.
Only a handful of the hostages stayed true to their own faiths, including Mr. (Steven J.) Sotloff, then 30, a practicing Jew. On Yom Kippur, he told his guards he was not feeling well and refused his food so he could secretly observe the traditional fast, a witness said.
Those recently released said that most of the foreigners had converted under duress, but that Mr. Foley had been captivated by Islam. When the guards brought an English version of the Quran, those who were just pretending to be Muslims paged through it, one former hostage said. Mr. Foley spent hours engrossed in the text.
His first set of guards, from the Nusra Front, viewed his professed Islamic faith with suspicion. But the second group holding him seemed moved by it. For an extended period, the abuse stopped. Unlike the Syrian prisoners, who were chained to radiators, Mr. Foley and Mr. (John) Cantlie were able to move freely inside their cell.
Given the circumstances, however, should Foley's "conversion" really be presented as a fact? That was my question as I read the story.
Times reader Bob Scrameustache expressed a similar sentiment in a Twitter exchange between him and the writer:
In a story published Wednesday, Catholic News Service quoted Foley's mother, Diane:
From the Catholic News Service story:
In 2011, militants loyal to Moammar Gadhafi captured Foley in Libya and held him for 44 days. He later wrote an essay for Marquette Magazine in which he spoke about the power of prayer and how it helped him endure his imprisonment.
“I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed,” Foley said. “It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Mary’s off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.”
Diane thinks praying also helped her son maintain hope during his second captivity, she said.
“I think that is a fruit of prayer, too, and his faith, that he was hopeful, that he did know … that we were all doing all we could do.”
From there, the Catholic News Service story referenced the Times report:
John and Diane Foley, who are Catholic, maintained that their son’s faith was evident throughout his captivity, though they did not name a specific religion.
“Jim prayed often, the other hostages tell us, and when he prayed, he felt the closest to his family. So, we really felt that sustained him,” Diane said. “I’m so thankful that he believed and he trusted that God was with him, so he wasn’t totally alone.”
Diane said she believes her son’s faith, and the prayers from people all over the world, gave him the courage to endure and be a positive presence for the other hostages.
“Daniel (Ottosen, one of the freed hostages) told us that Jim was pure goodness,” she said. “And that just really meant so much to me as a mom, you know. That even in that dark hole, thanks to the prayers of so many, that Jim was able to reach deep and be a bit of goodness and light.”
I wonder: Was Catholic News Service overly cautious in reporting that Foley's parents said "their son’s faith was evident throughout his captivity, though they did not name a specific religion?" What faith would Catholic parents be referring to?
I also wonder: Why didn't someone ask a terrorism expert about people who convert under torture? How genuine could that be considered? And can you accept the testimony of others who have endured similar tortures?
The other obvious question: If Foley really converted to Islam, why kill him? More from the Times reporter:
But now it's your turn, GetReligion readers: Did the Times handle the claim that Foley gave up his Catholic faith in the best manner? Do you, like the reporter, accept his conversion as a fact? Why or why not?