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Red Church (Kirkuk)

Inside the old walled citadel of Kirkuk sits the Red Church, so called because in a.d. 409 a pagan king ordered hundreds of Christians beheaded. It is known throughout Iraq as "the graveyard of the Chaldeans" for the massacre there, but Chaldeans today prefer instead to recount the epilogue: A general named Tahmazgerd, under orders to carry out the murders, watched in particular one young mother killed with her two children. Seeing their "faith, serenity, and the trust of the widow," the story goes, Tahmazgerd converted to Christianity-and later himself was beheaded.

Last week nearly 1,000 Christians turned out to commemorate the 1,600th anniversary of that event. They attended a courtyard service followed by a Mass on Oct. 16 with a recital of hymns the following day. "The blood of our martyrs is the treasury of faith," Chaldean archbishop Louis Sako told me by telephone from his office in Kirkuk just before leading the Mass. "It reflects our trust in the resurrection and it is an appeal to persevere and witness our Christian values in a land in which the majority is not Christian." Belz, 2009

In the afternoon, we visited an ancient Nestorian Church, but which subsequently became Roman Catholic, and is usually styled in this country Chaldean. The church is situated on an elevation out of own, it is called to this day, Kelesia Kermiz (i.e. the red Church), which name is given to it on account of the bloodshed connected with the Christian congregation of that church; the occasion of which is, according to local tradition, said to have been as follows: -- A Persian King, (whose name we could not ascertain), came with a formidable army, in order to compel those Christians to adopt the Parsee or Gabe religion; and having been overcome by the vast number of the hostile infidel army, they chose rather to suffer death, than to become apostates to their faith. While the work of martyrdom was proceeding, a pillar of fire is said to have been perceived in the air by the prince. This extraordinary circumstance astounded the prince, and it was not less wonderful in its effects; it occasioned the conversion of the prince to the Christian truth. Accordingly the new convert made a public declaration of his faith, upon which his infidel father, the king, threatened him with a tormenting death, if he persisted in his belief in the Christian religion. The prince, very far from being frightened by this threatening, not only declared his readiness to submit, but cheerfully to suffer any thing his father might choose to inflict upon him, for the sake of Christ and his religion; after which declaration, he suffered martyrdom, and is thus ranked among the martyrs of that congregation.

The name of this prince is Zarnas Gar; his tomb is on the right side of the vaulted hall, which I will presently describe. The most remarkable place of that ecclesiastical establishment is a narrow vaulted hall, about sixty feet long and ten broad; it contains nine recesses, five on the right and four on the left side, bearing some resemblance to the caravan-serais in Persia, which are intended for the accommodation of travellers. The recesses are said to be tombs, and there is also another tomb, on the upper part of the said hall. These, and the cellars which are supposed to be under the building, contain, according to tradition, one hundred and fifty thousand Christian matters, who became the victims of an infidel tyrant, in the manner above stated. There is also a small chapel with a Roman Catholic altar, and two small pillars facing the same; but the whole of this part appears to be of much more recent date than the body of the church or convent. Next to the said altar, there is a small chamber, containing a baptismal font, which is approached by a range of steps. This part of the church looks very old.

Sternschuss, 1848


Belz, 2009.

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Sternschuss, 1848. Jewish Missionary Intelligence, Volume 14. Sternschuss was a Christian missionary who had converted from Judaism.