Several of Peru's national leaders praised the country's commitment to religious freedom during a world religious liberty festival that drew some 40,000 supporters, organizers estimated.
Speaking to a crowd of mostly Seventh-day Adventists at Lima's National Stadium, Peru's Supreme Court President Javier Villa Stein quoted Adventist Church co-founder Ellen White, an early promoter of religious freedom, and complimented the church for its commitment to continuing that legacy.
"I'm with you," Stein told the crowd at the Saturday, June 13 event.
The festival was the latest and largest in a series of similar festivals held to thank countries that support religious freedom. Event co-sponsors include the Adventist Church and the International Religious Liberty Association, the world's largest forum on religious freedom.
The Lima event included a June 12 march through downtown by some 10,000 freedom of conscience supporters representing different faith communities, followed by an evening symposium of 400, including Stein.
Since 2005, the Adventist Church's approach to promoting religious freedom has taken on a celebratory approach, resulting in the liberty festivals.
Within the last few years, festivals have been held around the world, including events in Angola, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Upcoming 2009 festivals are scheduled for Seoul, South Korea, Jerusalem, Israel, Caracas, Venezuela, Bogota, Colombia and Jakarta, Indonesia.
During his keynote address in Lima Saturday evening, John Graz, director of the Adventist Church's Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department, said many experts estimate 300 million people around the world are persecuted for their faith. He charged the crowd to defend people who believe differently from them.
"Defending others is also defending yourself," he told the crowd through a Spanish-language interpreter.
Graz also referenced areas of the world without freedom of belief.
"Imagine you were in North Korea," he said. "You cannot have human rights without religious freedom." Graz also mentioned violence in India 's eastern Orissa province where Christians have been attacked for their faith.
Peru's Minister of Defense, Ântero Florez Araoz, addressed the audience saying he applauded the work of the Adventist Church.
"You are lucky," Araoz said. "Not only does Peru have a good military defense, but also citizens who believe in the defense of beliefs."
Additional guest speakers included Nidia Vilchez Yucra, minister of women and social development, and the ambassadors from Israel and Palestine.
Graz said the genesis of the festivals can be traced back to 1995 when as a guest speaker at a church, only 25 people showed up on a Saturday afternoon to hear about religious freedom. "After that, I saw that we had to change something," he said.
For Erton Kohler, president for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America, and a team of church leaders who were involved with the organization of the event, the Lima festival was the latest in a series of initiatives promoting religious liberty across the continent.
Festivalgoers said they attended to support religious freedom, a gift that in some countries is taken for granted. Adventist Church member Ronald Aguilar said the work of religious liberty organizations has contributed to a society where he spread the gospel in his country without any problem.
In his speech, Graz emphasized that freedom should never go unappreciated.
"The time has come to say 'Thank you' for religious freedom," he said.
--Sam Del Pozo and Susana Alemá contributed to this story