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Philippines Drag Queen Arrested Over Controversial Jesus Performance, Sparks Freedom of Expression Debate

A drag queen in the Philippines, Pura Luka Vega, has been arrested for their controversial performance as Jesus Christ reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The video of the performance, which featured Vega, whose real name is Amadeus Fernando Pagente, sparked criminal complaints by Christian groups in July.

Under the obscenity laws of the predominantly Catholic country, the 33-year-old Pagente could face up to 12 years in jail. Approximately 80% of the Philippines population identifies as Roman Catholic. According to Manila police, Pagente has been charged with the offense of “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and exhibitions, and indecent shows,” as stated in an arrest warrant.

The video depicted a bearded Pagente dressed as Jesus Christ, delivering a rock version of the Lord’s Prayer in Tagalog. However, the video has since been deleted. The Philippines for Jesus Movement, a group consisting of Protestant church leaders, initially filed a criminal complaint with the Manila Prosecutor’s Office at the end of July. Subsequently, a second complaint was filed in August by the Nazarene Brotherhood, a Catholic group.

The controversy surrounding the performance escalated as several cities in the Philippines, including the capital Manila, declared Pagente “persona non grata,” a Latin phrase indicating an “unwelcome person.”

For many years, drag queens in the Philippines have been popular entertainers known for impersonating singers and actresses, often delivering humorous punchlines in stand-up shows. Pagente represents a new generation of drag queens who utilize their performances to advocate for causes and challenge the boundaries of free speech.

In response to the arrest, Pagente emphasized that it reflects “the degree of homophobia” present in the Philippines. They noted that while their performance may be deemed blasphemous, offensive, or regrettable by some, it should not dictate how they practice their faith or express themselves through drag.

Supporters have rallied behind Pagente, calling for their release with the hashtag #FreePuraLukaVega, asserting that “drag is not a crime.” Some have drawn comparisons between Pagente’s situation and alleged murderers and sex offenders who remain free without facing justice.

Ryan Thoreson, a specialist at Human Rights Watch’s LGBT+ rights program, has also called for the charges against Pagente to be dropped. He argues that freedom of expression includes artistic expression that may offend, satirize, or challenge religious beliefs. The arrest has ignited a broader debate in the Philippines about the boundaries of freedom of expression and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

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