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Nations are stronger when they support families, religious pluralism, President Nelson tells world leaders on tour

“A plural society with religious orientations are very strengthening to the values of a country and the strength of families,” President Russell M. Nelson told Colombia President Iván Duque on Monday.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, left, present gifts as they meet with Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez, right, in Bogota, Colombia, Monday Aug. 26, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, left, present gifts as they meet with Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez, right, in Bogota, Colombia, Monday Aug. 26, 2019.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

QUITO, Ecuador — Colombia President Iván Duque flew into Bogotá moments before — and President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flew out moments after — the two met on Monday morning. But for 35 minutes, they met on common ground at the airport.

Duque, an influential young leader on the South American continent, spoke in American English and “made a very strong statement that the morals that strengthen various religious communities is a part of his governmental hope,” President Nelson said. “He wants all the good that he can get from our church and the others. A plural society with religious orientations are very strengthening to the values of a country and the strength of families.”

President Nelson stressed a similar message as he met with national government leaders like Duque and other dignitaries in Guatemala on Saturday, Colombia on Sunday and Monday, and Ecuador on Monday night, urging them and thousands of church members at a time in large devotionals to strengthen families and share moral religious values. Those messages, delivered in Spanish by the church president, resonated both with members and with the leaders who met with President Nelson before each devotional.

“I’ve had experience in those countries where religious freedom is prohibited,” President Nelson told the Deseret News after meeting with Duque. “I’ve always had the experience of having their leaders say, ‘We need your values. We’ve lost that strength of family. We need your values.’ It’s much easier to protect religious freedom than it is to achieve religious freedom. It is the only way you can live in a pluralistic society and have them love one another, cooperate with one another. It only comes if they can be anchored in the rights and privileges and values of religion.”

President Nelson spoke near the earth’s equator on Monday in Quito after a flight right down the northwestern spine of the Andes Mountains. A van took him from the airport up the steep, winding road that stretches up to a striking sight, a long plateau where most of the city’s 2 million residents live 9,350 feet above sea level.

He instructed 11,520 people at General Rumiñahui Arena to choose to live moral, faithful lives.

“We need to purify our language, elevate our thoughts and live our lives with obedience to God’s commandments,” he said. “Please teach your children about the Lord Jesus Christ. His Atonement is the most important event in the history of the world and is the foundation of our religion. All other things concerning our religions are secondary to it.”

Before the devotional, President Nelson met government and religious dignitaries in a small room. A painting of Christ hung on one of the whitewashed stone walls just for the event.

The Rev. Federico Boni, a member of the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Nunciature, which is equivalent to an embassy of the Holy See in the Vatican, attended. The Rev. Boni has been assigned by Pope Francis to analyze the relationship between religions as well as the religious liberty in Ecuador. Boni works alongside Latter-day Saints, evangelists, Muslims and Jews in an interfaith group initiated by the U.S. Embassy. The group recently met with Ecuador President Lénin Moreno, who Boni said has been open to dialogue on religious liberty.

“The purpose of the meeting was to talk about education and religious freedom and how the government can improve these critical principles that benefit the country,” the Rev. Boni said.

He called it “a great honor” to meet President Nelson and one of his companions on his nine-day tour of the continent, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Elder Cook spoke to the Rev. Boni and other dignitaries, including Christian Cruz, president of the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control, the government agency designed to prevent corruption and promote transparency.

“We’re particularly concerned about faith, family, religious liberty and unity among people,” Elder Cook said. “In addition, we have a strong commitment to humanitarian efforts. We invited you because you do these things.”

“Elder Cook said some very beautiful words about the things that unite us,” the Rev. Boni said, “especially religious freedom and humanitarian aid.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided humanitarian aid to 1.95 million Ecuadorians since 1985, according to Latter-day Saint Charities. The church has 248,651 members in the country, which is 1.5% of the population.

Duque once lived in the United States and conducted the morning meeting in English.

“He led off with expressions of gratitude for what the church has done for moral values and strengthening the families of the country and also relief with various projects we’ve helped with over the years,” President Nelson said.

Elder Cook said the conversation was a wonderful exchange about family and strong homes. The meeting lasted 35 minutes and included Colombia’s director of religious affairs, Lorena Rios.

President Nelson presented Duque with a miniature Lladro statue of the Christus and a leather-bound copy of the Book of Mormon. Duque gave President Nelson an illustrated book about Colombia and one other gift.

“He’s highly principled,” President Nelson said. “One of the things that struck me was that he’s out to change the culture of the people so that they’re growing instead of narcotic (crops), they are growing chocolate. He gave us a little sample of chocolate to say, we’re trying to sweeten the world instead.”

Duque also asked for ongoing spiritual help.

“He said, please pray for me. That’s a sign that he’s a religious man and believes in God,” said Elder Enrique R. Falabella, president of the church’s South America North Area. “President Nelson told him he that (church leaders) pray every Thursday for him.”

Colombia’s place on the map thrusts Duque into major international issues, and his charismatic, populist style vaults the conservative into headlines.

Duque won office last year at age 41. Now 43, he is involved in issues of major global and South American importance, including the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest responsible for 20% of the world’s oxygen.

Colombian leaders say the church makes important contributions in the country, as detailed in two stories published over the weekend by the Deseret News. The church, which has 205,000 members here, has helped more than 1 million Colombians with humanitarian aid in recent decades. The church and its members also use their expertise to influence efforts to secure and defend religious liberty in the country.

On Saturday, he called Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro to offer his nation’s help to combat the forest fires in the Brazilian section of the Amazon forest that are drawing worldwide attention and concern. Pope Francis used his weekly appearance Saturday in St. Peter’s Square to call for the world to pray that the fires soon will be controlled.

The Amazon comprises 40% of Colombia’s federal territory. The mighty river and its tributaries course through the country on its 4,000-mile march to the Atlantic Ocean, according to Infobae.

On Sunday, Duque said he will attempt to have all Amazonian countries join a conservation pact. He will begin that effort this week in a meeting in Peru and continue at the U.N. General Assembly.