Millions will be following closely the Holy Father’s visit to Iraq this weekend – but perhaps none moreso than a two-piece dance band from London, and an Iraqi priest with whom they collaborated on their latest track. Nick Benson explains the link.
It has been almost 15 years since a young Iraqi teenager found himself leaving the country’s capital of Baghdad on his 16th birthday.
It wasn’t a decision he took lightly, but it was one forced upon him after he received a death threat from a terrorist group.
Fast-forward to 2021 and that one-time refugee is now 30-year-old Fr Daniel Alkhory, a priest who now works back in his homeland and has been looking forward to the pope’s visit since it was first announced. To mark the occasion, Fr Alkhory has joined forces with London electronic dance act Ooberfuse to record a new song entitled Stand Up, proclaiming the rule of love and end of hatred.
As part of his historic papal trip to Iraq this weekend, the Holy Father will visit the ancient Christian cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh and celebrate Mass in Erbil’s Franso Hariri stadium.
While there he will give a voice to the anxieties of the traumatised and encourage them to remain in their ancient homelands.
In 2014, in a bid to build a worldwide caliphate, Daesh/Islamic State chased embedded Iraqi communities from their ancient homelands. Driven north, these displaced groups set up improvised refugee camps. Their basic needs for shelter, food and water were answered by local and international humanitarian initiatives. Fr Alkhory ran one such project, repurposing his church to care for the traumatised fugitives.
Back then the priest knew exactly what it felt like to be a refugee driven from one’s home. Eight years earlier he had been forced to flee Baghdad with just 24 hours’ notice after receiving a death threat from a terrorist group; failure to comply would have been a death sentence for him and his family.
Following this terrifying ordeal, Fr Alkhory answered his vocation from God, becoming a priest and, as he puts it, “changing my misery into ministry”.
He returned to Iraq once Daesh was defeated and is now a strong advocate for the country’s persecuted, working day and night to empower hope in their hearts to stay in Iraq and be the light and salt of the country.
“In 2014 my church became a shelter for thousands of displaced people fleeing their homes because of ISIS attacks,” he recalled. “I work day and night to strengthen the hope in their hearts to stay in Iraq.”
The priest has now translated this strength and hope into music, teaming up with Ooberfuse in an effort to fortify the hearts of the despairing as part of his first musical project.
“I met Ooberfuse in 2015 and we became good friends, united in our shared desire to nourish hope in the face of despair,” he said. “Our song, Stand Up, is an anthem of encouragement and a plea for peace.”
The London-based band, made up of singer Cherrie Anderson and musician Hal St John, merge Eastern influences into Western pop and have built a global reputation with their electric live performances, with recent tours to Japan, China, Korea, India, Philippines, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Cherrie recalled meeting Fr Alkhory in 2015 while playing for refugees in Iraq. “We were doing some improvised pop-up performances in the displacement camps run by the United Nations and Fr Daniel,” she told The Catholic Universe. “We would set up our sound system and, with Fr Daniel, bring some respite to the traumatised by playing a gig.
“I am so happy to work on this song with Fr Daniel, bringing more encouragement and to make unheard voices more audible.”
Hal said that the track has “been in gestation longer than a baby elephant”, which can be up to 23 months!
The band remained in contact with Fr Daniel after that meeting in 2015, catching up again when he visited the UK to present the then-Prime Minister Theresa May with a Bible that had been burned in a Daesh attack on a church.
The chance to collaborate with the priest on a track timed to coincide with the pope’s visit to Iraq was too good to miss, Hal said, though it did bring with it some logistical challenges. “We were both in lockdown in our respective countries, so Fr Daniel went to an Erbil recording studio and then sent us his vocal takes on the draft track. We built up the track around these.”
Cherrie added: “One of the benefits of technology is that we are not limited by physical restrictions relating to collaboration nowadays. Virtual collaboration, such as recording and production, is now possible. The song has taken a while to complete, so we’re happy to share it now!”
Speaking of the pope’s visit to Iraq, the duo said they hoped it would bring peace and healing to the war-torn country.
“I think it’s quite an historic visit on many levels, quite apart from the fact this is the first time a pope will tread the plains of Nineveh where so many stories from the Old Testament were lived out,” said Hal. “In more recent times the city of Mosul is known to our generation as the battleground where soldiers fell defending treasured traditions against Daesh terror groups.”
Acknowledging the many lives lost, including those in the Yazidi genocide and ancient Christian communities forcefully evicted from their homes, he hoped that Pope Francis “will show that we can live side by side in peaceful co-existence”.
“God’s prolific abundance is sufficient to supply us all so we don’t need to fight but to love one another,” he said. “Pope Francis will give voice to the lesser-heard Christian communities so that their aspirations for the future are heard and factored into plans for the country. More importantly, though, his mere presence in these territories will soothe the wounds and heal the pain of those survivors who are building for the future haunted by the terrors of the past.”
Cherrie, recalling her experience of witnessing the Holy Father’s visit to her home country of the Philippines, said she wants his visit to rekindle hope in Iraqi’s hearts.
“I hope that the message of peace and hope will resonate in the hearts of the local communities, and also in the hearts of everyone elsewhere in the world,” she said.
“I was in my birthplace, Tacloban, Philippines, when Pope Francis visited as part of his Mercy Mission, and I pray that his visit to Iraq will rekindle hope in people’s hearts like it did in mine, and remind us that the Lord will never abandon us, whatever we face.”
Cherrie said she would also like to think their collaboration with Fr Alkhory will bring a message of hope to everyone who listens, helping them realise “that we are all brothers and sisters”.
“I also hope that they hear the call to ‘rise up, stand up’ and not just be silent. The chorus talks about being a message of hope and not hate,” she added.
Describing the collaboration as a moment of celebration, Hal pointed out the power music has in helping to build bridges and bring people together in a common fraternity.
“We hope that everyone will drop their weapons so that they can raise their hands in the air to celebrate the coming of peace,” he said. “We joke that our music genre is EDM – Erbil Dance Music!
“We have worked with some drummers from Baghdad whose rhythms provide authentic flavours as the song progresses. Fr Daniel is our main inspiration, though, with his gentle inflections and uncompromising call to end the hatred so that love may rule again.”
Hal added that the band is “privileged” to be a part of Fr Alkhory’s mission to sustain the fragile communities and to build their resilience, as the displaced are largely returned to their homes.
“We have been working night and day to collaborate and to make our track as celebratory as possible,” he said. “After a masterclass from DJ/producer Armin Van Buuren and some production excellence from Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, Stand Up is out now.”
And he vowed: “Love will rule again to end the hate that has plagued Iraq and the Middle East.”
Stand Up by Ooberfuse ft. Fr Daniel Alkhory is out now. To listen to the song, go to: Youtube: https://youtu.be/3mk9COKvEJ0 or Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/ooberfuse/stand-up-ft-fr-daniel-iraq/s-u2Y7rKtWHOl
Main picture: Ooberfuse – Cherrie Anderson and Hal St John.