SAN ANGELO, Texas — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday at his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls.

His surprise 30-minute statement followed prosecutors resting their case against him, after they played an audiotape of what they said was him assaulting a 12-year-old he had taken as a “spiritual wife.”

Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, evoked images of the civil rights movement and mentioned former Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. in his statement. He also asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

His sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church’s 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.

After his statement, which attorneys have the option to make when they begin presenting their cases, he called one of his church’s members to testify. JD Roundy read from the Book of Mormon.

Jeffs is accused of sexually assaulting two girls, the 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 119 years to life in prison.

On Tuesday, prosecutors played two tapes of Jeffs instructing the older girl, as well as several women, on how to please him sexually — and thus please God.