A drag queen who dressed as Jesus Christ and performed a rock rendition of The Lord’s Prayer has been arrested in the Philippines under the country’s obscenity laws, sparking a fierce debate about free speech and protections for members of the LGBTQ community.
The Philippines is a deeply Christian country and the Catholic Church maintains significant influence both in daily life and politics.
Amadeus Fernando Pagente, 33, whose drag name is Pura Luka Vega and who uses the pronoun they/them, was widely accused of blasphemy by officials with the Catholic church and others after videos of their performance singing “Ama Namin,” the Tagalog version of the prayer, went viral in July.
The performer was taken into police custody on Wednesday under a law that prohibits “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and exhibitions, and indecent shows” by “offending any religion,” according to a statement from their legal team on X, formerly Twitter. The allegations say they also violated a cybercrime law because the video was shared online to allegedly “perpetrate the stated crime.”
The legal team vowed to contest the charges and focus initially on securing Pagente’s bail.
Online videos of the drag artist belting out the Tagalog version of The Lord’s Prayer alongside revellers in a bar sparked a significant backlash from religious organizations.
The show, in which Pagente could be seen dressed in robes imitating Catholic vestments with a golden halo, provoked a furor and became headline news for weeks in the Philippines while more than a dozen cities, including the capital Manila where the performer resides, declared Pagente “persona non grata,” a symbolic move declaring them no longer welcome.
Pagente’s arrest came after a criminal complaint was filed in August by the Hijos Del Nazareno Central, a group representing devotees of the Black Nazarene, a dark wood sculpture of Jesus brought to the Philippines in 1606 from Mexico and considered miraculous by its devotees.
The group famously organizes a huge annual religious parade in Quezon City which draws hundreds of thousands of devotees.
In a Facebook post after Pagente’s arrest, Hijos Del Nazareno Central said its “devotees will not allow the defamation of the name of the Lord Jesus of the Nazarene.” CNN has reached out to the group for further comment.
Multiple politicians, including senators, also went on Philippine television shows to criticize the drag artist’s performance, calling it blasphemous, disrespectful and offensive.
The drag artist has previously apologized to those who “felt uncomfortable” about their performance. But they also defended the act as a form of art, telling CNN affiliate CNN Philippines in an interview that the performance was an expression of the feeling of exclusion as a queer person in a deeply Catholic country.
“I understand that people call my performance blasphemous, offensive or regrettable. However, they shouldn’t tell me how I practice my faith or how I do my drag. That performance was not for you to begin with. It is my experience and my expression, of having been denied my rights,” the performer wrote in a post on July 13 on X.
Father Jerome Secillano, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, told CNN on Thursday that the performance was deemed offensive by the church for what it viewed as a lack of reverence.
“[The performance] was a mockery of our faith, and elements of our faith should not be used for secular purposes, especially for entertainment,” he said.
But Secillano stopped short of commenting whether the church viewed Pagente’s arrest as the right thing to do to defend the faith.
Nearly 80% of Filipinos identify as Roman Catholic and the church still wields a great deal of power and influence.
The Philippines is the only country in the world, aside from Vatican City, where divorce is still not allowed. Same-sex marriage and abortion are also banned. An anti-discrimination bill that would do more to protect minorities has also made little headway in congress in recent years against opposition from conservatives.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde described Pagente’s arrest as “an outrage” and “an overreaction on the part of those who felt offended.”
“This case is pushed by a few people that Pura Luka [Vega] supposedly offended – not by Filipinos at large – who decided to weaponize existing laws … against LGBT people,” Conde told CNN in an emailed statement.
Pagente was a contestant on the reality pageantry show “Drag Den,” which launched in December 2022 on Amazon Prime.
The series, directed by Rod Singh, a transgender Filipino, was set in an underground den, juxtaposing the drag queens’ flamboyant personalities with the constant need to remain subversive amidst socially conservative Philippine norms.
Following the arrest, Singh has defended Pagente, whom she describes as a friend and colleague, saying on X that “this issue is no longer about a drag performance, your supposed god, or your thin faith. Whether you admit it or not, your prejudice against our community and the rights we demand is at the center of it.”
“With your eyes wide open, you believe and worship a God you can’t see, but close your eyes to the matters of life and human rights that are at stake. You learned to pray but you didn’t learn to understand. Don’t ask us for something you can’t give,” Singh added.