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Pope slams gay marriage ahead of Italy vote

Written by: Staff

VATICAN CITY, Mar 31 (Reuters) Pope Benedict, speaking just 10 days ahead of Italy's national elections, lashed out against gay marriage and abortion and said the Church had the right to speak out on thorny political issues.

Opposition centre-left politicians who advocate some legal recognition of the rights of unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples accused the Pope of meddling in politics.

Addressing lawmakers from the European People's Party (EPP), Benedict said yesterday the Church's position on such issues was ''non-negotiable''.

He said the Church had a right and duty to defend ''the recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage''.

It would oppose ''attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilisation'', he added.

Opposition politicians slammed the Pope's words on abortion and gay marriage as political interference.

''It is ever more clear the Church hierarchy have decided to jump in to the election campaign'', said Daniele Capezzone of the leftist ''Rose In the Fist'' party, part of a coalition led by former European Commission President Romano Prodi.

''It is people who decide whether their relationships constitute a family ... Not everyone shares the Pope's point of view,'' said Franco Grillini, a homosexual and parliamentarian of the Democrats of the Left, Italy's largest leftist party.

Centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a member of the EPP. He had been due to attend the audience but backed out earlier this month after opposition leaders said it would amount to a de facto papal blessing for his re-election campaign.

The Pope said the Church was not interfering, but ''enlightening consciences''.

He asked lawmakers to defend its right to proclaim what he said were principles ''inscribed in human nature itself and therefore ... common to all humanity''.

''Your support for Christian heritage ... can contribute significantly to the defeat of a culture that is now fairly widespread in Europe, which relegates (religion) to the private and subjective sphere,'' he said.

A survey released earlier this year cast doubt on how much influence the Church will have on the elections, with a majority of Italian Catholics disagreeing with papal doctrine on some moral and social issues.

But last summer, a referendum on easing Italy's restrictions on artificial fertility failed when too few people turned out to vote -- a victory for the Church, which had called on people to abstain in a campaign explicitly supported by the Pope.

Leaders of Berlusconi's coalition, which sees itself as the natural home for Roman Catholic voters, defended the Pope.

''This controversy is unfounded and out of place,'' said Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini.

''Who can argue with the Holy Father's moral and religious authority to defend values and concepts that are fundamental to Church doctrine.'' Reuters PV DS1205

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