March 27, 2012— -- A church pastor in Pennsylvania could face felony charges for staging a fake kidnapping of youth group students in order to teach them about religious persecution.
Teenagers at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church in Middletown, Pa., were surprised when they attended a youth group meeting at the church on March 21 and were ambushed by what seemed to be real kidnappers.
Adults, including an off-duty cop, brandished weapons and put bags over the heads of the children, ages 13 through 18, and forced them into a church van. The group was driven to the home of an assistant pastor, who was presented before the group with a seemingly bloodied and bruised face, according to Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo.
One of the adults used a real AK-47, though the gun was unloaded, Chardo said.
The church leaders who organized the fake hostage situation later told law enforcement that the event was meant to be a lesson to the children on how Christians are persecuted in places around the world, but the "educational" event may actually constitute a crime, Chardo said.
"We are conducting an investigation. False imprisonment of a child is a felony offense, and carries up to 10 years in prison," Chardo said. "We are still in the investigative phase, trying to find out what happened."
Chardo said law enforcement officers are interviewing many of the children and adults involved in the event.
One 14-year-old church member who was terrified by the kidnapping told ABC affiliate WHTM that she was outraged the leaders did not warn the children or stop the exercise once they saw how upset everyone was.
"They said, 'Just do what we say and you won't be hurt,'" she told WHTM. "I thought, 'Why not tell us that it was a joke?'"
The girl and her parents have filed a complaint against the church, citing both physical and emotional harm, according to WHTM.
The pastor, John Lanza, told the news station that the teens were not let in on the truth "to secure the shock value of it and to make it much more real because those who are threatened don't have a warning. It was a youth event to illustrate what others have encountered on a regular basis."
Lanza and the church did not immediately return calls for comment.