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StoryIraq | 27 July 2023
Singing 'Hallelujah' in an ISIS shooting range in Iraq
Show: false / Country: Iraq / Iraq
Where once ISIS bullets careened off church walls, songs of praise now rise from this Iraqi worship band.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah. The singers repeat the words, as the instruments swirl around them. Some of the instruments—a nef (a type of flute), a daf (a handheld drum) and a violin—might be unfamiliar to Western ears, but the words are ones every Christian in the world has sung.
Yet unlike other worship bands you may have heard, this one, Melody, is singing praise to God from a place where Christians were chased out, abducted, brutally slaughtered and left for dead.
Their song rises in the church square—the hallelujahs have returned to the small city of Qaraqosh, Iraq.
Hear their story and their song:
Melody was founded by its six members when they were living as displaced people (IDPs) in Erbil, a larger city in northern Iraq. They’d all been forced to flee Qaraqosh in August 2014 as the Islamic State group swept across the region. The church square shown in the video above was once used as a shooting range by Islamic State group fighters.
They sing against a backdrop of bullet holes—the destruction is a reminder to future generations of Christians, a reminder of the time the enemies of God tried to stamp out the people of God.
And a reminder of how those people failed. It’s a living testimony of the words the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 58: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).
Sam, Farid and Fady—the three instrumentalists—started the band in 2017. “We began meeting [in Erbil] and playing,” says Sam, Melody’s leader. “Playing music gave us energy, we were able to feel alive again. Doing nothing in Erbil, we tried to revive ourselves through music and revive others as well.” Sam says their music became “food for the soul.”
Across the Nineveh Plains—the part of Iraq where Christian communities have existed since the time of the early Church—the Islamic State group took control of villages, removed crosses and destroyed countless churches and monasteries. For three years, the black flag of ISIS waved over the region as a sign that Christians were no longer welcome.
And then, in late 2016, Qaraqosh was freed. Slowly, Christians began to return. They surveyed the destroyed remnants of their homes and churches, and then they began to rebuild.
When Sam, Fady and Farid returned to Qaraqosh, after the liberation and the restoration of houses, they recruited some female singers. “After just making music, we added singing,” the 31-year-old bandleader says. Now they have seven band members.
And they kept making music, praising God through melody and lyrics. “Through this, we were able to rise above the destruction and revive our existential necessities of life that were inexistent; through music, we were able to restore hope,” Sam says.
‘Carrying the Word to the people’
Since then, Melody has continued to perform throughout the region, even going to the city of Mosul, where ISIS proclaimed their so-called Caliphate in June 2014. Almost no Christians have returned to Mosul after the liberation by the Iraqi army, so Melody sang and played to a mainly Muslim crowd. When performing for such an audience, “we try to rearrange the program but, through our work and our style, we show our faith,” Sam says. “My dream is that we keep on giving, [and] continue to work together, to present works that touch people, carrying the Word to the people.”
Hiba, a 25-year-old woman, is one of the singers. She’s very happy that female voices were added to the band. “God gives a gift to every person, and this talent must be used; one must seek how to nurture this talent,” she says. “That is why I joined [Melody].”
For her, it is important to know that things in life have a purpose. “God gave us a gift,” she says. “We must invest in this talent; the band allowed every person to discover their God-given talent, to stand on stage and sing with the beautiful voices that God has given us.”
She also realizes how much their worship means to their audiences. “I see joy and happiness in their eyes; this makes me really happy,” she says.
An enduring witness for the gospel in Iraq
Farid, one of the other founders of the band, echoes these thoughts. “I want to keep presenting music that surpasses the noise of war and destruction to deliver a message to the world,” he says. “Music, in general, is the biggest drive for hope in the future. Music is a language of peace, of love. Surely the audience senses the message we want to deliver. It is grasped by all kinds of audiences. Our message comes from the heart.”
Farid is also aware that bringing hope and joy to people will help ensure the Christian community remains in Iraq. So many people fled Qaraqosh—out of the 50,000 people who lived there before the Islamic State group violence, only 35,000 now remain. And across Iraq, the Christian community has been decimated. The number of Christians in Iraq was around 1.4 million in 2003. Now, only approximately 250,000 remain. “This land is the land of our forefathers and the land of our children’s future,” Farid says. “Our music [makes people] understand that we will remain in this land. We must preserve it; we need to deliver a beautiful picture to the world through music.”
Open Doors partners have been on the ground since before the Islamic State group, and your gifts and prayers have helped the Christian community in Qaraqosh rebuild. Sam is grateful for your support. “I would like to thank all those that helped, the supporters abroad,” he says. “Through your support, we were able to rebuild our churches and houses. We were able to return and live in safety. Thank you and thank you for your prayers for us. And we will be praying for you, so that God will strengthen you and keep you safe. Thank you all!”