The fallout from a church massacre in Baghdad, Iraq, rippled into El Cajon on Wednesday as several hundred Iraqi Christians mourned family and brethren killed in the weekend bloodbath.
The attack by militants unfolded 7,700 miles away, at the Our Lady of Salvation church. But for Iraqi refugees gathered at a downtown prayer vigil, it might as well have been next door.
Manal Naoom of El Cajon said her cousin, a pregnant 23-year-old, was among those slaughtered. "I'm just sickened," Naoom said at the Prescott Promenade. "Isn't a church supposed to be a safe haven, a safe place?"
Chaldean Catholic Diocese Bishop Mar Sarhad Y. Jammo tried to come to grips with what happened. At least 58 people were killed, including two priests.
"We are in the year 2010. We are in the 21st century after Christ," he told the somber crowd, his voice rising. "How can barbarism be so much alive?"
He called on the U.S. government to take a more active role again in Iraq's daily affairs. Most American combat troops pulled out of the country by August.
"It is the duty of America to ensure equal constitutional rights for all citizens of Iraq, including Christians," the bishop said.
Some urged the Iraqi government to crack down on militants, who have stepped up their long-running campaign to drive out Christians. An estimated 35,000 Chaldeans and other Iraqi refugees live in the El Cajon area. Many have left their homeland in recent years due to religious persecution.
A dozen police officers, five bystanders and at least 39 worshipers were killed in the massacre. Survivors said one of the priests grasped a Crucifix moments before he died, pleading with the gunmen not to shoot.
The attackers reportedly yelled, "All of you are infidels!" A militant organization with ties to al-Qaeda said it was behind the killings.
Iraq's Christian community dates back centuries. Most members are Catholics who attend Chaldean churches or Assyrian churches.
On Wednesday, the American national anthem was sung at the start of the El Cajon event. One speaker, a deacon at a local Chaldean church, thanked East County for embracing the immigrant population.
Wameedh Tozy of El Cajon said he lost two loved ones in the attack -- his uncle and the husband of a cousin. Tozy carried photos of both men at the vigil. His eyes were puffy and red.
Tozy has little hope the Iraqi government will end the violence. For Christians still in that country, he said, "God help them."
By Steve Schmidt