Did James Foley Die a Muslim Convert or a Catholic Martyr?

(photo: YouTube)

When James Foley was publicly beheaded by militants from the Islamic State, the grisly video of the American reporter's execution led some Catholics to praise him as a martyr for the faith. 

But, later, other released hostages, who knew Foley, testified that the American had converted to Islam, and that his conversion appeared to be genuine.

Was Foley a Catholic martyr or a Muslim convert? asks The New York Times. And if he did formally embrace the religion of his captors, was that the free expression of his conscience, the result of violent coercion, or simply a tactic to secure a reprieve from the daily beatings he endured at the hands of ISIS?

Foley's mother, a practicing Catholic who regularly prays the Rosary, told The Times she had received conflicting reports from hostages who knew her son.

“What the hostages had told me was that by saying that he had converted to Islam, he would be left alone five times a day, without being beaten, so that he could pray,” Diane Foley told The Times, adding that she believed her son died as a Christian and that he had helped many of his fellow hostages endure the harrowing conditions of their captivity. 

Indeed, reports from released hostages identified Foley as the prisoner who received the most grueling punishment, but also the one known for small acts of kindness. While prisoners were pressed to the limit and starved, with fights breaking out,  "Mr. Foley shared his meager rations. In the cold of the Syrian winter, he offered another prisoner his only blanket," the Times reported last fall.

Pia de Solenni addressed this question of Foley's martyrdom in the wake of his execution, but before the reports of his conversion to Islam surfaced.

She raised a number of important points, including the fact that a Catholic martyr for the faith is a man or woman who pays "the ultimate price"--choosing death rather than repudiating their Catholic faith and love for Jesus Christ. 

But she offers additional points that suggest Foley did not convert to Islam, and that the staging of his execution actually confirmed that fact.

"We know that IS/ISIS/ISIL generally offers its captives a choice: convert to their brand of Islam or die, as witnessed by the thousands of people fleeing Iraq these past few weeks. It could be that they only wanted Foley because he was a US citizen and that they would have killed him regardless, but I doubt it. I think they would have celebrated if he’d become one of them. Heck, they’ve got plenty of Westerners joining them. The man who beheaded him is possibly a UK citizen," she wrote.

"I don’t think it’s insignificant that they 'made him stand against a wall and pose as if he had been crucified,'” she added, noting comments from another blogger.

However, it is also true that Islamic State militants executed Foley after their negotiations to extort money for his release failed to produce the desired results. The U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists, and IS may have staged the beheading simply as a way to make Washington pay a political cost for that policy.

But there is still more to consider, including the fact that Foley's abduction by ISIS militants was not his first brush with captivity, though the Islamic State's treatment of hostages is known to be especially brutal. Previously, when he was abducted in LIbya, his courage and faith testified to his striking personal qualities.

After he was released from captors in Libya, Foley wrote his alma mater, Marquette University, to express his gratitude for the support he had received during his captivity. In his letter, Foley described how regular recitation of the Rosary with Clare, a fellow captive, gave him hope and kept him sane.

"I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Let's pray for the soul of James Foley, and for his family, who must live with the fact that he was not only brutally murdered, but also beaten, waterboarded and starved. And let's pray for all the nameless captives who are now enduring a similarly horrific fate at the hands of Islamic State. Women from minority religious communities have been forced to marry militants, and children have been deployed as suicide bombers. Innocent hostages abducted from their communities or snatched on the road face torture and death.  

In the wake of the recent execution of 21 Coptic Christians by Islamic State militants, Pope Francis said,  "The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out. I read about the execution of those twenty-one or twenty-two Coptic Christians. Their only words were: 'Jesus, help me!' 

"They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians."