This story has been updated with a statement from the Unification Church.
School officials in a rural area in the Pocono Mountains, in northeastern Pennsylvania, reportedly told elementary school parents that their children will be relocated for the day Wednesday to accommodate a nearby church planning a special wedding-like ceremony involving AR-15 semiautomatic rifles — similar to the weapons used in a Florida high school massacre exactly two weeks earlier.
The Wallenpaupack Area School District sent a letter to parents whose children attend the Wallenpaupack South Elementary School informing them that students will spend the day on a different school campus, reported WFMZ-TV news, which serves eastern Pennsylvania. The move was a safety precaution, WFMZ reported, although the church has told attendees — who church officials say are coming from around the world for the service — not to load the weapons.
The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, also known as the Sanctuary Church, is led by the son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-professed messiah from Korea who became a symbol of the 1970s cult wars by holding mass weddings for couples who often were strangers. Moon, who founded the Unification Church, became a player in a segment of the American conservative world through business interests including the Washington Times, and his son Hyung Jin Moon has woven gun rights into the religious community he leads in Pennsylvania, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and calls Hyung Jin Moon an “anti-LGBT cult leader.”
The church’s website calls for “heterosexual couples” who believe that Hyung Jin Moon is the representative and heir of his messiah father to participate in a historic “Perfection Stage Book of Life Registration Blessing” — either in Newfoundland or “at other locations via the Internet.” The site calls the service at 10 a.m. Wednesday the “Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing” ceremony. “True Parents” was the term Sun Myung Moon’s many followers called him and his wife. The SPLC site says “Cheon Il Guk” is the church’s name for “a sovereign kingdom of heaven on earth” — that must be defended, “which is where the assault rifles come in,” the center’s site says.
“Blessed couples are requested to bring the accoutrements of the nation of Cheon Il Guk, crowns representing the sovereignty of Kings and Queens, and a ‘rod of iron,’ designated by the Second King as an AR15 semiautomatic rifle or equivalents such as an AK semiautomatic rifle, representing both the intent and the ability to defend one’s family, community and ‘nation of Cheon Il Guk,’ ” the church’s site says in a statement. Hyung Jin calls himself “Second King,” the SPLC reports.
If couples can’t bring the guns because of legal problems “or other reasons,” they are “invited to purchase a $700 gift certificate from a gun store, as evidence of their intent to purchase a ‘rod of iron’ in the future,” the church’s site says. “These actions to participate with crowns and a rod of iron/gift certificate are signs of attendance, sovereignty and vigilance to protect God’s coming nation.”
The church also calls itself the Rod of Iron Ministries, citing the Book of Revelation, which God is said to run with an iron scepter.
The Unification Church released a statement disavowing the event, the church and its theology. It called Hyung Jin’s church a “breakaway” movement and said he has “sadly chosen to separate from and rebel against his mother and his father’s philanthropic endeavors,” the statement read.
“Family Federation is all about healing and reconciliation. We host events to promote interreligious dialogue, responsible civic leadership, and marriage blessing ceremonies. Rev. Moon’s teachings are all about bringing people together so that we bring joy and happiness to God, our Heavenly Parent and feel fulfillment ourselves. Bringing weapons into any of that seems completely contradictory to me,” Rev. Iwasaki Shota of the Pennsylvania branch of the Unification Church, said in the statement. “We would also like to take this opportunity to stress that our events, programs and theology do not involve the use of firearms or weapons whatsoever.”
Local media cited many parents who were afraid of an event with so many firearms — especially near a school.
“I wish they wouldn’t have it at all. I don’t think there’s a good time to have it, especially this close,” Kendra Hanor told WNEP-ABC. But most of the comments on the station’s website were supportive of the church, saying it’s their legal right.
While the ceremony and church are on the American fringe, religiously, they are making common cause with evangelicals, who polling shows are more likely than Americans overall to be satisfied with current gun laws and who prefer laws to be less strict, according to Christianity Today. A 2017 piece by the magazine cited data by the firm PRRI finding that “evangelicals were the only religious group in which a plurality (40 percent) say that putting more emphasis on God and morality in school and society is the most important thing that could be done to prevent future mass shootings.”
The Wednesday ceremony will follow a “President Trump Thank You Dinner” the church organized Saturday night in nearby Matamoras. WNEP reported that a couple hundred people attended the event at a Best Western that was a fundraiser for the group Gun Owners of America. The dinner was co-sponsored by Kahr Arms, a weapons manufacturer owned by Moon’s brother, Justin. Kahr opened a 40,000-square-foot building in 2015 in the Poconos.
Protesters are planning a vigil at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Pike County Courthouse, according to the Pike County Courier. The names of students and adults killed Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., and in other communities in recent mass shootings will be read.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Hak Ja Han Moon was deceased.