In August 2014, nearly two years after his abduction in war-ravaged Syria, the American journalist James Foley was beheaded by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS). Among his fellow hostages, he was remembered for small acts of kindness, sharing his rations and sustaining their spirits amidst mock executions and frequent waterboarding. Why, many wondered, would anyone subject himself to such danger?
The answer lay in his sense of vocation: to stand with those who were suffering and to use his skills to let the world know of their plight. That commitment was in turn rooted in the deeper experience of his upbringing in a devout Catholic family and his Jesuit education at Marquette. During an earlier forty-four-day captivity in Libya, he had sustained himself by using his knuckles to say the rosary: “Prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom.” He also wrote of praying with Muslim fellow prisoners and asking Jesus whether it would violate his beliefs to pray to Allah. While he didn’t find a theological answer, he wrote, he had felt sure that he was united with his companions and that he was “authentically praying to Jesus.” That story offered some context to the report that Foley, during his captivity in Syria, had converted to Islam. As his mother noted, “Only God and Jim know what was going on in his heart.”
“I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”
—James Foley, from a last message to his family