Greek officials should drop blasphemy investigations against a controversial play depicting Jesus Christ and his apostles as gay, says Human Rights Watch.

On October 11, the night of the Athens premiere of Terrence McNally’s controversial play Corpus Christi, dozens of people including members of religious groups and two members of parliament from the far-right Golden Dawn party protested outside the theatre, intimidating and threatening people who wanted to attend the play.

Written in 1997, Corpus Christi depicts Jesus and the apostles as gay men living in modern-day Texas. In it, Judas betrays Jesus because of sexual jealousy and Jesus blesses a gay marriage between two apostles.

The Greek run of the play was cancelled in early November after weeks of almost daily protests. The Athens public prosecutor’s office then opened an investigation into whether the performance of the play violated Greece’s 1951 blasphemy law.

“The director, producers, and actors have every right to stage this play, even if it is considered offensive or disrespectful by some,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should be defending freedom of speech, not applying an outdated and problematic law.”

The 1951 law criminalises “malicious blasphemy” and “insulting religions” and is punishable by up to two years in prison.

The play’s director, Albanian-born Laertis Vasiliou, told Reuters he was shocked that the Greek authorities were wasting their energy going after him in the midst of the economic crisis facing the country.

“What I see is that there are people who have robbed the country blind who are not in jail and the prosecutor turns against art,” he said.

The Corpus Christi investigation raises concerns about undue interference with freedom of expression and a new climate of intolerance in Greece toward those deemed to offend the Greek Orthodox religion, Human Rights Watch said.

The last time anyone was prosecuted for blasphemy in Greece was in 2003. Gerhard Haderer, an Austrian writer, was prosecuted for his book, The Life of Jesus, on the grounds that it portrayed Jesus as a hippie. He was acquitted in 2005.

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