Italian advocates of civil union for gays and lesbians have protested in some 90 cities, demanding legal recognition in the traditionally Catholic nation. Italy's Senate opens law change debate next Thursday.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out Saturday to back the liberalization bill submitted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. It will be open to free conscience votes in parliament's chambers.
Dividing lines cut across party loyalties, with opposition coming from a minority faction within the ruling Democratic Party and a government coalition partner, the New Centre Right (NCD).
Renzi's move has the back of most of the parliamentary opposition Five Star Movement, left-wing parties and even sections of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
Liberalization opponents plan a "family day" on January 30 in Rome, organized by mainly Catholic groups.
Gay rights advocates at protests from Milan to Palermo organized by Italy's biggest gay rights group, Arcigay, carried clocks (pictured above) to underscored their motto "wake up Italy, it's time to be civilized."
Italy remains the only major Western European nation not to have enacted civil union legislation allowing same-sex couples to have their relationships recognized and protected by law on issues from pensions, parenthood and adoption.
Italy has already been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to introduce such legislation.
Other EU nations to recently adopt similar legislation areIreland
Italian opponents see the bill that will legalize civil partnership for homosexuals before a state official as a Trojan Horse that could lead gays seeking legalized marriage which in theological terms is often depicted as having sacred connotations.
If approved, partners in same-sex civil unions would be able to take each other's name, and, in certain circumstances, adopt each other's children and inherit residual pension rights.
30 years and still not acknowleged
Two women at Saturday's Rome rally held up a sign that read: "Stella and Paola, we've been together for 30 years and you still don't acknowledge us."
The head of the Italian bishops conference Angelo Bagnasco has denounced the bill as a "grave and irresponsible distraction from the real problems of the country."
Pope Francis stepped into the debate on Friday, saying there could be "no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union."
"What he said didn't surprise me," said Andrea Rubera, a gay rights protestor. "All he did was to repeat the church's anthropological viewpoint."
ipj/bw (AFP, Reuters, AP)