SAN DIEGO — Alcoholic beverages aren't the only merchandise many liquor stores sell in the greater San Diego area.

Pornographic magazines and videos have a place on the shelves, too. But the picture is changing now that a couple of Knights of Columbus have stepped in.

Like in Detroit, the San Diego area is home to many Chaldean Christians, many of whom have emigrated from Iraq. Kamal Alsawaf and Keith Michael Esshaki are two such immigrants.

Both are past grand knights of the Mar Toma council of the Knights of Columbus at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, Calif. They began to meet the pornography problem head-on with their fellow Chaldean Catholics who own a number of stores.

They talked about the problem at council meetings and visited these stores one by one to convince owners to get rid of the porn. Those that did quickly found clear consciences and an unexpected bonus when business actually increased.

Take the case of store owner Zuhair Hanna, who once carried the magazines and videos, then listened to Alsawaf and Esshaki.

“One day I took the step,” said Hanna, a Knight. “‘God is watching,’ I thought. He knows what we're doing. So I took them out.”

Hanna figured to lose his $3,000 monthly gross income that meant more than $2,000 in profits from the magazines and videos. Pointing out that the profit margin is high on this material, he expected total monthly gross sales to drop from $80,000 to $77,000.

“But the very next month my business went up to $84,000 total sales,” he said. “God blessed me with something else.”

New customers came when they learned he didn't carry the porn. Now Hanna encourages everybody to do the same, like his brother who just bought a store and told the distributors he didn't want the smut.

“When brother Knights talk about it, the message is stronger,” Alsawaf said.

Ninety percent of the San Diego area's 900 or so liquor stores are owned by Chaldeans.

Alsawaf, district deputy for the Knights, explained that Chaldeans, who are “by nature a very hardworking and dedicated people,” gravitated to the liquor stores (and grocery business) for several reasons. The whole family could work in the store, they didn't mind the long demanding hours, and the business didn't require a special education or a strong knowledge of the English language.

High Profits

It was also a way of helping family members already here or immigrating. After learning the business, relatives then open a store of their own.

According to Father Michael Bazzi, pastor of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, there are about 30,000 Chaldeans in the San Diego area. At first he visited every store, frequently with a Knight.

He told owners: “It's a shame for you to be religious and spread poison around. Selling drugs and porn is giving poison to others.”

Many agreed and removed the magazines. Sometimes he found out that after he left a store, the owner would call others to tell them Father Bazzi was coming. By the time he got there, shelves were empty.

“There was that feeling of guilt. They knew there was something wrong. And that's important — to know you're committing sin,” he said. He speaks on the subject from the pulpit and lets the Knights visit the stores.

Esshaki said part of the problem is that the pornography is already in the store when people buy the business.

“They think it's part of the business — until someone brings it to their attention and steers them in the right direction,” he said.

Owners also get lots of pressure from porn distributors who lure them with high profits.

“There are a lot of challenges, a lot of financial temptations,” he said.

Yet, when his own parents bought stores, they firmly insisted offensive material be removed.

“We got blessed even more when we removed the porn,” Esshaki noted.

The men stressed that spiritual reasons to remove the corrupt materials must be first and foremost. When they recruit fellow Chaldeans into the Knights of Columbus and teach them the organization's message and what it means as a practicing Catholic, they raise the issue of the porn being sold.

“At first it wasn't easy to convince anybody,” said Alsawaf, citing the previous reasons. “But after we explained the damage it can do and the harm it can bring to a family,” he said, they began to understand because Chaldeans usually have large families and are strongly family oriented. They didn't want their own children viewing the material.

For store owner and current Grand Knight Saad Mattia, the spiritual effects are primary.

“It's not a matter of increasing business but for me feeling good I don't have that in my store,” he said. “By people knowing you don't have that, a different type of clientele is coming into the store. That's how it increases business.”

Spiritual Dangers

Before he started working in his brother's store, Mattia asked him to get rid of the porn. Although his brother noted the good profit, Mattia continued his insistent requests. His brother removed the material.

“I thought it was God who put it in his heart to get rid of them,” Mattia said.

Today, good magazines and snack foods fill those shelves. And Mattia's second brother purged the porn the first day he walked into his own new store.

Esshaki addresses the problem at every Knights meeting.

“I speak of the spiritual dangers, the dangers to their children and families,” he said. “Most have children working in the stores. And most take out the porn.”

To the handful who resist, he makes it clear that “this is a complete contradiction of our faith.” He recommends uncompromising action: Remove the material or be removed from the Knights.

With about 100 Chaldean Knights in the council, Alsawaf sees a ripple effect. All either own stores or have family members who do.

“When we talk about this, the message is going to all the store owners,” he said. “They're all related. News travels fast.”

“We control the market,” he said, “so if we get rid of the pornography, we'll clean up San Diego … people and law enforcement will support us in these issues, and the Lord will love us.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.