Hundreds of couples toting AR-15 rifles have packed a Unification church in the US state of Pennsylvania to have their weapons blessed by God as “rods of iron” that could have saved lives in a recent Florida school shooting.
Women dressed in white and men in dark suits gripped the guns, which they had been urged to bring unloaded to the church on Thursday (Australian time) in the rural Pocono Mountains, about 160km north of Philadelphia.
Many celebrants wore crowns, some made of bullets, while church officials dressed in flowing bright pink and white garments to go with their armaments. The ceremony doubled as a recommitment of vows for married couples.
A spokesman for the church, now headed by the Reverend Hyung Jin Moon after the death of his father and church founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, said the marriage blessing ceremony had been planned long before a man with an AR-15 massacred 17 students and school staff in Parkland, Florida, on February 14.
Students from an elementary school near the church were relocated for the day to distance them from the gun-toting couples at the ceremony, according to the Wallenpaupack School District website.
Mr Moon said in a statement that the staff of the Florida school should have been armed, an option President Donald Trump has said should be explored nationwide and which teacher unions have criticised.
“Each of us is called to use the power of the ‘rod of iron’ not to arm or oppress as has been done in satanic kingdoms of this world, but to protect God’s children,” he said, citing the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“If the football coach who rushed into the building to defend students from the shooter with his own body had been allowed to carry a firearm, many lives, including his own, could have been saved.”
The Unification church, known to many as ‘Moonies’, is a religious sect founded in South Korea that believes its founder Sun Myung Moon was personally visited by Jesus Christ and given a mission to begin a “unification movement”. It is marginalised by mainstream Christian churches and has split into several factions after its founder’s death.
The Pennsylvania school district three years ago called off classes during the massive manhunt for survivalist Eric Frein, who police said used an AK-47 style weapon to ambush a Pennsylvania state trooper barracks and then fled into the mountains.
Frein was found guilty in April of killing a Pennsylvania state trooper and wounding another in the September 2014 attack.