(This version of the Feb 28th story corrects in first and fifth paragraphs to show that Unification Church says Pennsylvania church is break-away organization and not affiliated)
By Eduardo Munoz
NEWFOUNDLAND, Pa. (Reuters) - Hundreds of couples toting AR-15 rifles packed a church in Pennsylvania on Wednesday to have their marriages blessed and their weapons celebrated 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 Sanctuary Church in the rural Pocono Mountains, about 100 miles (160 km) 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.
Reverend Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, son of the late founder of the Unification Church, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, blessed the roughly 250 couples at the service, a Sanctuary Church spokesman said.
His Sanctuary Church is a breakaway group and not part of the Unification Church, said Unification Church spokeswoman Nancy Jubb. Sanctuary Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Feb. 28 marriage blessing ceremony had been planned long before a man with an AR-15 assault-style rifle massacred 17 students and school staff in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, the spokesman said.
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.
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 criticized.
“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 Book of Revelation in the Bible.
“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,” Moon’s statement said.
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.
Reporting by Eduardo Munoz; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker