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Tens of thousands protest against same-sex unions in Rome

People have staged a large-scale rally in the Italian capital to protest against a bill that would legalize same-sex civil unions. The issue is proving deeply divisive for Matteo Renzi's government.

Huge crowds gathered in Rome's ancient Circus Maximus arena on Saturday, urging the government to drop legislation offering homosexual couples legal recognition and some adoption rights.

Among the protesters were Roman Catholic priests clad in black robes and activists waving placards reading: "No to civil unions." Official numbers were not immediately available, but organizers of the so-called "Family Day" claimed that up to 2 million people had turned out. Journalists at the scene, however, estimated the number to be merely in the tens of thousands.

The contested bill was introduced to the Senate last week and is due to be voted on in mid-February. However, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's governing coalition remains deeply divided over the issue. Several government officials, including Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti, took part in Saturday's demonstration, while others offered their support from the sidelines. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said on Twitter that he "fully" backed the protest.

Priests shout slogans against same-sex civil unions

Priests shout slogans against same-sex civil unions

Controversial adoption clause

The legislation would give same-sex couples a similar status to married couples, affording them visiting rights in hospital or prison, or inheritance and widowed pension rights in case of death. Its most controversial clause would allow a gay person to adopt their partner's biological children.

"We cannot let children pay for the desires or caprices of adults. Children need to have a father and a mother," said Simone Pillon, one of the rally's organizers. "We want the whole law to be withdrawn, no ifs and no buts."

The issue has also divided Italian society, with thousands staging a rally last weekend to demand the civil union bill be approved. According to the latest opinion polls, some 70 percent of Italians believe same sex couples should be granted legal protection, such as inheritance rights, but only around 24 percent back the granting of adoption rights.

Change ahead?

Italy is the last major Western European country that offers no rights or recognition to same-sex couples, despite calls from the European Court of Human Rights for reform. Although the church's influence has waned over the years, religion remains a strong social force in the predominantly Catholic country. A week ago, Pope Francis issued a clear reminder of the church's opposition to gay marriage, saying that the traditional family was "the family God wants."

Center-left Renzi has indicated that he hopes to deliver the reform "within weeks." If the Senate approves the bill in February, it will be passed on to the lower house of parliament for final approval.

nm/gsw (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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