Around 250 couples armed with assault rifles have exchanged or renewed their wedding vows in a commitment ceremony at a US church – angering locals and forcing a school to close.
Scores of brides clad in white and grooms in dark suits, who had been asked to bring their AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, attended the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania.
Some worshippers wore crowns made out of bullets.
The congregation drank holy wine and lined up with their weapons to be splashed with holy water by church officials dressed in flowing bright pink and white garments.
The Unification Sanctuary’s leader, the Reverend Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, is the son of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah who founded the Unification Church, which has been accused of being a cult.
Rev Sean Moon believes the AR-15 symbolises the “rod of iron” mentioned in the Bible’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation and that not only every American, but all mankind, has the right to self-defence and to use it to protect “God’s children” in the “satanic kingdoms of this world”.
The church leader insisted the ceremony was not for “blessing weapons”.
However, it outraged some members of the local community who gathered to protest outside the event, holding up posters that read “Worship God, Not Guns” and “God Does Not Bless Guns”.
Lisa Desiena, from Scranton, said she owns a gun but added: “I don’t need a freaking assault weapon to defend myself.
“Only thing they’re good for is killing. Period. That’s all that weapon is good for: mass killing. And you want to bless it? Shame on you.”
“It’s scaring people in the community,” another demonstrator told a church member. “Are you aware of that?”
Students from a nearby school were relocated for the day to distance them from the gun-toting couples at the ceremony, according to the Wallenpaupack School District website.
The event also fell on the same day students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, for the first time since a 19-year-old used an AR-15 to kill 17 students and staff on Valentine’s Day.
But those in the congregation believe US school shootings do not justify stricter gun laws.
“I don’t think restricting gun ownership has proven that where there are less guns, there will be less violence,” said, Andrew Kessler, a lawyer from the affluent suburb of Westchester, New York.
Sreymom Ouk, 41, who attended the ceremony with her husband, Sort Ouk, said they owned an AR-15 to defend the family against “sickos and evil psychopaths”.
Rev Moon said in a statement on Facebook that the staff of the Florida school should have been armed.
“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,” he wrote.
The Pennsylvania church is a staunch supporter of the constitutional amendment that protects the right to bear arms.
It runs a group called Rod of Iron Ministries, which hosted a “President Trump Thank You Dinner” at the weekend to raise money for Gun Owners of America, a grassroots gun rights lobby group.
Wednesday’s blessing was planned months before the mass school shooting in Florida.
All weapons brought along were unloaded, secured with zip ties and checked at the door.
Those who did not own an AR-15 were advised to “purchase a $700 gift certificate from a gun store”, as evidence of their intent to purchase one in the future.
To not take part in the ceremony “would be a sign of great disrespect”, the church’s website said.