As children attend classes at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School on Feb. 28, a church half a mile away will hold a blessing ceremony for couples with AR-15s.
That frightens Liz Zoccola, a parent from Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, where the controversial World Peace and Unification Sanctuary church is located.
“I would consider keeping my child home,” Zoccola told WNEP. “It’s scary.”
The ceremony is set for 10 a.m. that day, when couples are asked to bring in an “AR15 semiautomatic rifle or equivalents such as an AK semiautomatic rifle,” according to a press release on the church’s website.
If you can’t bring a weapon, the church suggests buying a $700 gift certificate from a gun store that can be blessed instead.
It’s all about protecting the “nation of Cheon Il Guk,” a “heavenly kingdom on earth” that is a core belief of the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary. The church — labeled a racist, homophobic and antisemitic hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — is an offshoot of the Unification Church that was founded by Sun Myung Moon in the 1950s.
After his father died in 2012, the Rev. Hyung Jin Moon opened a church in Newfoundland. He calls himself the “Second King” and leads the socially conservative congregation of about 200, according to the Standard Speaker.
The church believes that an AR-15 is the “rod of iron” that is talked about in the Book of Revelations, the final part of the Bible that describes the end of the world.
That’s why the gun has such a religious significance for the church, director of world missions Tim Elder told The Associated Press. Revelation 2:27 reads: “He will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.”
“This rod of iron is the AR-15, in today’s terms,” Elder told WNEP.
But following a mass shooting with an AR-15 at a Florida high school that left 17 dead, some parents aren’t comfortable with the ceremony so close to an elementary school — even with the religious explanation.
“I wish they wouldn’t have it at all,” parent Kendra Hanor told WNEP. “I don’t think there’s a good time to have it, especially this close.”
While Ed Gragert, from the Delaware Valley Democratic Club, told the Pike County Courier that he has a pair of events planned to push back against the church, which has its own militia trained in guns and knives.
One will be a candlelight vigil at a county courthouse on Feb. 28, he told the newspaper, and the other will be a protest outside the church when it holds a “President Trump Thank You” dinner for gun rights on Feb. 24.
“For us, it is obscene to glorify the AR-15 assault rifle when it’s been used once again in Florida to kill 17 students and teachers,” Gragert said. “There is no room for hate/cult groups and such glorification/trafficking in assault rifles in Pike County!”
But Richard Panzer, president of the church, told the Standard Speaker that they are taking safety precautions for the blessing ceremony, which was planned before the Parkland, Florida, massacre.
“All of the weapons in the ceremony will be checked to make sure they are unloaded, with a zip tie so that no bullets can be inserted,” he said in an email. “We are inviting local and state police to be on the premises, so that everything goes safely.”