Western journalists James Foley and John Cantlie converted to Islam while being held hostage in Syria, a Belgian newspaper quoted a jihadist suspect as saying Wednesday, adding that the pair may have been forced to do so.
Foley, an American, was beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) group last month, while Cantlie, a Briton, is believed to be still in captivity.
IS has been accused of forcing Christians and other minorities to convert to Islam during their sweep across parts of Iraq.
The Flemish-language newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws cited testimony from Jejoen Bontinck, a 19-year-old Belgian Islamist convert who was detained in October 2013 upon his return from an eight-month visit to Syria and charged with belonging to a terrorist group.
Bontinck told Belgian interrogators that in August 2013 IS suspected him of spying and put him in a prison in the region of Aleppo where the two Western journalists were being held, according to the newspaper.
“Foley and Cantlie were kidnapped by the Nusra Front,” the branch of Al-Qaeda in the country, “outside an Internet cafe,” the Belgian former fighter said.
He said the two journalists were moved about on several occasions and “tortured” while “barely getting enough to eat” before they were handed over to IS.
It was around two weeks into their captivity by IS that they told the young Belgian that they had converted to Islam, Bontinck was quoted as saying.
“They told me that they had not always led an exemplary life, that for example they had not shown enough respect for their mothers and that they understood it thanks to their conversion,” Bontinck said.
He said nonetheless that his jailers encouraged him to convince his two cellmates to convert to Islam, suggesting that the hostage takers had not taken seriously the two men’s prior conversion to Islam, the newspaper said.
The Islamic State broadcast a video of Foley’s murder on August 19. Another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, was beheaded two weeks later.
On September 18, the group broadcast a video of Cantlie, who said he had been kidnapped following his arrival in Syria in November 2012.