efe-epaSao Paulo

Ultrarightist President Jair Bolsonaro, the first Brazilian leader to participate in the "March for Jesus," the main annual event for the huge number of evangelicals in the South American giant, on Thursday thanked the faithful for their electoral support and for helping him to start changing Brazil.

"You were decisive in helping to change the destiny of Brazil," the head of state said in a seven-minute speech to hundreds of thousands of members of various evangelical groups gathered in Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city.

Bolsonaro, a reserve army captain who calls himself a Catholic but regularly attends evangelical Protestant religious services along with his wife and children, was elected with the support of the majority of the country's evangelical pastors and leaders as well as with the votes of most of their flocks thanks to his rhetoric regarding defending Christian values.

This was the first time in its 27 years that the March for Jesus, with organizers this year expecting participation of more than last year's two million, has been attended by a Brazilian president.

Brazil is the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, but recently it has seen enormous growth in neo-Pentecostal and other Protestant or evangelical groups.

The number of evangelicals in Brazil grew by about 60 percent over the past decade to about 42 million, according to the 2010 census, compared to the country's 123 million self-declared Catholics, and the active participation of evangelical pastors in politics has made the surging group an important force in Congress.

Bolsonaro, dressed in a march t-shirt, participated in the event along with lawmaker Marco Feliciano, one of the leaders of the Cathedral of the Revival church who has become the main voice among evangelicals, who make up one of the main minority groups in the national legislature.

The president came to the Plaza of the Heroes of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force about 3:30 pm, almost six hours after the start of the march of 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) through downtown Sao Paulo, and he was greeted by a few boos that were quickly overshadowed by a huge ovation and by shouts of "Mito" (myth) as he is known among his followers.

"This is the first time that the name of God is being heard within the Brazilian presidency," he said upon introducing to the public "Apostle" Estevem Hernandes, the founder and head of the Reborn in Christ Church, the evangelical group with the most followers at the march along with the popular Assembly of God and Kingdom of God Universal churches.

"It's very good to be among friends. And even better when they are friends with God in their hearts," Bolsonaro told the throng gathered in front of a stage on which, for about 10 hours, 28 gospel singers and musical groups, as well as dozens of evangelical leaders and pastors, performed and addressed the crowd.

In an allusion to his main campaign slogan, Bolsonaro said that God is above everything followed by the "respected and traditional family."

The president, who said once again that in Brazil "the state is secular but the current government is Christian," mentioned the country's "ethical and moral" problems and said that he hoped to be a "point of inflexion" in overcoming them with the help of the country's evangelicals.

Bolsonaro, who last year participated in the march as a presidential candidate and promised to return as head of state, promised to attend the 2020 march, too.

Also participating in the event were Sao Paulo Gov. Joao Doria and Sao Paulo city Mayor Bruno Covas - both with the Brazilian Social Democratic Party - but the former did not receive anywhere near the ovation that Bolsonaro got and the latter was booed.

The march has been held yearly in Sao Paulo since 1993, was included on the official agenda of Brazil in 2009 by then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and is considered the largest event of its kind in Latin America.