SAN DIEGO -- The Iraqi Chaldean community in San Diego is still trying to come to terms with a massacre at a Catholic church in Baghdad that left more than 50 people dead.
In El Cajon, Rafi Romeal Hana takes a break from his job at a sandwich shop and sits at a table in the shade. He looks tired and sad. He speaks about his cousin who was living in Baghdad.
"When we were children he was telling me, I want to be a priest, I want to be a priest," he said.
His cousin, Dhear Abdullah, did go on to be a priest. He was giving Mass at his Baghdad church last Monday when terrorists broke in and began firing. The terrorist group is believed to be associated with Al Qaida. Hana said he was at his own church, St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral in El Cajon when he found out about the shooting.
"The priest here [said], there's people, terrorist people, who went to the church and killed the priest. And I know all my family, they go there every Sunday. My first cousin is a priest there," Hana said.
Hana went home and called his mother. She and Hana's father and brother had stayed home from church that day. At first Hana believed his cousin had just been injured. He later found out that he'd been the first person killed. Hana said the priest told the terrorists they could kill him, but they should let his parishioners live.
"He told them…kill me first, but don't kill the people. If you want to kill me, kill me," Hana said. "They killed my cousin… first. And his brother who was there, he went to him to hug him and they killed him."
Hana said his aunt was also at the service. She threw herself on top of her sons after they'd been shot and then she was shot. She remains in the hospital.
Hana said Christians in Iraq are increasingly being driven from the country. Hana experienced this himself. He immigrated to the United States last year after a terrorist group began threatening him while he was working in a Baghdad hospital.
"They [came] to my home, they threaten me. They told me, 'we're going to give you three days to make a decision. If you don't join us we're going to kill you.' That's why the next day I took my family and ran away from my home," he said.
Hana and his family eventually fled to Turkey and then came to the U.S.
Dr. Noori Barka is the Chairman of the Chaldean Council for Public Affairs, which represents 10 organizations in San Diego. He said it's estimated there were about a million Christians living in Iraq at one point. He said over the last seven years 1,000 have been killed and 600,000 have left the country. Barka said this latest attack is particularly horrific.
"With a car bomb in the street, the car bomb doesn't differentiate between Christians or Muslims. Christians are killed, Muslims are killed. But when you go into a church and you target people praying, Christians, this is a very different story now," Barka said.
Barka believes terrorists associate Iraqi Christians with the West and attack them as a way to send a message. Hana said the church massacre was a senseless act. "They went there to pray. They didn't carry any weapons and the terrorist killed them."
By Katie Orr