“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” — Gospel of Mark 10:15

Americans could not see the faces of the children who died at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, sparing them the horror of those final moments behind the faraway pictures of a raging fire.

But it is the fate of the children — innocents as young as 1 or 2 exposed by their parents and cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, to a brutal end of a spiritual journey they had not chosen for themselves — that resonates in the minds of many as the nation comes to grips with the tragedy.

For many religious leaders, accustomed from the biblical account of Jesus’ forgiveness of the thief on the cross to hope that even a condemned murderer may find salvation in the gallows, there is little doubt of the eternal resting place of the Waco children.

“I believe that God loved and cared for each of those children and that God cried when they died,” said Mary Jane Pierce Norton, who works in children’s ministry for the United Methodist Church. “God . . . would be wiping the tears from the faces of those children, even now.”

Children occupy a special place in the Bible. Passages in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew all tell of Jesus gathering children around him. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” according to Luke 18:16.

An overall biblical message of God taking the side of the poor and oppressed also particularly applies to the young in American society, where children are the poorest age group and often the most neglected, theologians said.

Even as secular authorities attempt to judge who was responsible for the final conflagration, religious leaders interviewed said they do not blame God for allowing the suffering of innocents but the evil in society that permits children to be turned into victims.

“God is obviously on the side of these oppressed children,” said David Dockery, dean of theology at southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Christian leaders from a variety of denominations also expressed confidence that when it comes time to make eternal judgments, the perceived failings of the parents would not be visited on the children.

“I think God would view them with great love and accord them full compassion, understanding and glory because they are victims of adult aberrations,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa.

In the Catholic Church and some other churches, infant baptism is practiced as a sign that God cares for children from their earliest days.

But even in churches where adult conversion to a certain Christian doctrine is seen as necessary to salvation, there is recognition of the innocence of children.

“I think we can depend on a merciful and just God to treat those children fairly and with grace,” Dockery said. “I think most Baptists believe that children are safe until they reach an age of accountability, which has never been” quantified.

As religious individuals try to understand the tragedy, some can only turn to personal images of God continuing to care for the children to find some solace.

“I believe that God loved and cared for each of those children and that God cried when they died . . . . I can only speak from the heart,” Norton said.

The Rev. Robert Meneilly of Village Presbyterian church in Prairie Village, Kan., said he believes the children are in heaven with God.

“I think those children, of course, are innocent,” he said.

“Even in the midst of that horrible, tragedy, at least God loves those children and has received them to himself.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.