VANCOUVER - Hundreds of people at a Vancouver church offered prayers and donations Sunday for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, as they were told not even religion could explain the unspeakable tragedy that has befallen the east Asian country.

The 130-year-old Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in downtown Vancouver held a service Sunday afternoon that alternated between English and Japanese, bringing together Japanese-Canadians, members of other local Anglican congregations and people from outside the faith -- many still coming to grips with the devastation unfolding across the Pacific.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami have together killed at least 8,600 people, with nearly 13,000 still missing and another 452,000 living in shelters. They have also sparked a continuing crisis at the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant which has been leaking radiation since the natural disasters.

Sunday's service began with the thunderous rhythm of a Japanese taiko drum as a candle-lit procession entered the packed cathedral. Next to the pulpit at the front of the church stood a cherry blossom tree adorned with dozens of colourful, hand-made paper cranes.

Bishop Michael Ingham told the audience that disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are examples of "natural evil," which happen randomly and can't be explained by any divine plan.

"Natural evil is the result of things over which we have no control -- earthquakes, tsunamis," Ingham said during the 90-minute service.

"We call them evil because they are evil. They wreak havoc upon the innocent and the defenceless. ... Natural evil is random. It is not planned. It afflicts us without reason and without human deserving."

In the face of such unspeakable horror, Ingham said, the world must come together as a community of neighbours.

"We must cultivate the virtue of compassion," said Ingham. "We cannot survive as isolated individuals or isolated societies. The pain of our neighbours is our pain. When neighbours suffer, neighbours respond."

The consul-general of Japan in Vancouver, Hideki Ito, told the service his country is grateful for the outpouring of support from Canada and around the world, both in the form of local fundraising by charities and offers of help from governments.

"This brings me much consolation, and I am both gratified and encouraged by the tremendous kindheartedness towards Japan," Ito told the cathedral, where a collection plate was raising money for an Anglican relief organization.

"It causes me to again realize that Japan and British Columbia are truly neighbours across the Pacific, and there is a shared humanity between us that goes beyond nationality."

Among the Japanese-Canadians filling the pews was Hitomi Wuang, who was born in Japan but now lives in Burnaby, east of Vancouver. Her family lives in northern Japan, not far from Fukushima Prefecture, but they were largely unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Still, Wuang said it's been a difficult week hearing about the devastation in her home country.

"There is no words, it's just so sad," said Wuang, 45. "(The service) was really great. It's really great to see lots of people come and pray for Japan."