Worshipers clutching AR-15 assault rifles packed a commitment ceremony in a Pennsylvania church, prompting a nearby elementary school to cancel classes on Wednesday.
State police stood vigil outside the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in the rural northeast village of Newfoundland, flanked by a smattering of protesters holding signs that called the congregation "an armed cult."
Pastor Sean Moon prayed for "a kingdom of peace police and peace militia where the citizens, through the right given to them by almighty God to keep and bear arms, will be able to protect one another and protect human flourishing."
Moon is a son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who proclaimed himself a messiah and founded the Unification Church. Many consider its followers as cult members. The church distanced itself from Wednesday's service, in which Moon held a gold-plated AR-15 for the entire ceremony.
Hundreds of followers came from as far away as Japan and South Korea to be blessed at the commitment ceremony where women white and men in suits hoisted their weapons and received blessings from Moon.
The gathering drew international media attention because of its adoration of the AR-15, a semi-automatic weapon that was used to mow down students on Feb. 14 at a Florida high school, where 17 people lost their lives. President Trump and lawmakers have advocated varying degrees of new gun control regulation as the country bitterly argues over whether everyday citizens really need to own military assault weapons.
"The country is nervous," church follower Carolyn Burkholder, 70, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Some people see this gun and they get scared," she said. "I used to be scared a little." She, too, brought an AR-15 to the ceremony.
Followers had their weapons inspected at the doors to make sure they were unloaded.They were zip-tied and held muzzle-up as congregants took their seats.
They rose when Moon and his wife, Yeon-Ah Lee, entered in a "royal procession."
“We are so grateful that we are receiving these accoutrements of royalty, of kings and queens, of sovereignty, of kingdom, of protection and self-defense,” Moon said of the guns.
The Sanctuary had planned Wednesday's even before the Florida school shootings, officials said.
The group believes the weapons symbolize the "rod of iron" mentioned in the New Testament's book of Revelation.