The courage and faith of James Foley

A devout Catholic, the journalist relied on God in dark times


By Sally Krutzig

News Editor





The world may know James Foley as the journalist who Syrian militants held captive for almost two years before they beheaded him on August 19 in a brutal murder that the terrorist group ISIL used for propoganda.

Not as well known, however, is the fact that Foley was a devout Catholic. His faith meant everything to him.

James Foley was not so different from the average University of Dallas student. He was a history major at a Catholic, liberal arts school, Marquette University. After college, he taught inner city kids and prison inmates with Teach for America. Foley then went on to study poetry and writing, before getting his degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

James Foley was recently beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant following his capture by the group in Syria. -Photo courtesy of Marquette University
James Foley was recently beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant following his capture by the group in Syria.
-Photo courtesy of Marquette University

The 40-year-old New Hampshire native had been captured before while reporting. The first time was in 2011, when stationed in Libya for the Boston-based GlobalPost. After being shot at by Gaddafi forces, Foley and three other journalists surrendered to the militants, but only after a fellow photojournalist, Anton Hammerl, was shot and killed.

Foley was held captive for 44 days. During that time, his faith was essential to him.

“I began to pray the rosary,” said Foley in a letter to Marquette University after his release. “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.”

When finally allowed one phone call from captivity, Foley was full of concern for his family, not himself.

“I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone,” recalled Foley in the letter. “‘I’ve been praying for you to know that I’m OK,’ I told her. ‘Haven’t you felt my prayers?’”

One day, Foley heard a knock on the wall of his cell. Putting his ear to the wall, a muffled voice told him he was an American contractor. From that day on, the quiet voice read to him from the book of Matthew.

“He’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” Foley said in a 2011 interview with David McKay Wilson for Marquette Magazine. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray to God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our moms would know we were OK.”

Foley knew the dangers of loneliness. He knew the darkness it could bring. When he noticed a fellow inmate, journalist Clare

Morgana Gillis, becoming anxious, he prayed with her, according to the Marquette letter.

“Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone,” Foley said.

When finally released, Foley credited his freedom to God, calling the release a “miracle” in his letter.

That first release gave hope to many after he was captured a second time. When the video of his death emerged, however, his loved ones realized that a first release did not necessitate a second.

“There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity. War begets war, the only answer is in prayer,” Father Paul Gausse reminded his parishioners at Foley’s home parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, had a prayer request of her own. She asked Gausse to pray that she didn’t “become bitter,” according to the Los Angeles Times. She asked that God help her not to hate the men who took her son’s life.

Pope Francis himself made a phone call to the Foley family to offer his condolences. The head of the Catholic Church “referred to [Foley’s] act as, really, martyrdom,” according to Foley’s brother, Michael, in an interview with Katie Couric.

Foley lived out his Catholic faith through his work in journalism. He saw the war-torn countries in which he reported as opportunities; they held “an amazing reach for humanity in these places, in these barren places” according to Foley in an interview with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Yet you couldn’t touch others from a distance, a belief which may have led to Foley’s two captures.

“That’s part of the problem with these conflicts. We’re not close enough to it,” he said in the interview. “If we don’t try to get really close to what these guys … are experiencing, you don’t understand the world, essentially.”

That desire to tell the true story from the front lines pushed Foley to head back to the field in 2011. After returning to the U.S., he stayed long enough to help raise money for the wife and children of Hammerl, the fallen journalist. He was in back in Libya in time to be at the scene of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture on Oct. 20, 2011.

“Rebels claimed Gaddafi had been killed in a firefight, but Jim found eyewitnesses who confirmed the despot had in fact died at the hands of former subjects,” Solana Pyne, his video editor said in GlobalPost’s remembrance piece on Foley.

That piece of insight led the United Nations to make a war crime investigation. It also won Foley and colleague Tracey Shelton the honored Overseas Press Club award.

Yet Foley was never one to brag about his success or experiences. When looking through dedications to “Jim” by fellow journalists, over and over there appears the sentiment that, in a field filled with macho reporters trying to prove their nerve and talent, Foley’s humility, kindness and quiet determination stood out.

“He did not see himself as important,” Peter Gelling, Foley’s GlobalPost editor said in the same article. “He hated being the subject of the story after his captivity in Libya. All that mattered to him was the people he wrote about.”

James Foley’s last communication with his family was through a memorized letter. He wrote numerous ones in jail, but each was eventually confiscated by his captors, according to the Foley family’s “Free James Foley” website. Foley then planned a new way to send his love. He had fellow captive Daniel Rye Ottosen, who was soon to be released, memorize a message. Upon his release, Ottosen contacted the family to “give” them Foley’s letter. His words are full of love and memories of happier times.

“Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured,” Foley wrote to his sister.

There were also reminders to loved ones.

“Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing,” Foley wrote. “I plan to take you out to Margarita’s when I get home. Stay strong because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.”

It also gives a glimpse at life in a rebel prison.

“Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me,” Foley said. “We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell … we have found ways to play checkers, Chess, and Risk.”

The video, entitled “A Message to America,” showed Foley in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in a desert. With little apparent emotion, Foley condemns the U.S. government for what is about to happen and calls upon his family to rise up against their country. Many believe the statement to have been written by his captors.

A masked militant then warns the United States that it must stop its bombing campaign in Iraq. The video cuts to Foley’s decapitated body.

In the last scene, the camera shows captured journalist Steven Sotloff, with the warning that he will be next should the bombings continue.

On Sept. 2, 2014, a video showing the beheading of Sotloff appeared on the internet.


  1. This was so well-written half way through the article I thought I was reading a New York Times article. James Foley was an amazing American, and the insights into his private life, faith, and career were fascinating


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