Organizers of a rally against controversial proposals to legalize gay unions in Italy claimed success Saturday, saying that 2 million people from around the country had gathered in Rome to back the protest.

Italy is the last Western European nation with no legislation on same-sex partnerships. The traditionally Catholic nation has been urged to change the status quo by both its constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights.

"There are more of you than what we expected," Massimo Gandolfini, spokesman of the so-called Family Day, said at the start of the rally at the Circus Maximus, a former ancient Roman stadium.

"I wanted to tell you that we are 2 million," he said later.

Gandolfini and other organizers had said they were predicting an attendance of 1 million people. In Italy, such estimates are routinely exaggerated, but the Circus Maximus looked full, and its capacity runs at least in the hundreds of thousands.

Antonio Brandi of the Catholic movement Pro Vita (Pro Life) told dpa that any attempt to recognize gay unions had to be resisted because it would "simply be the first step towards gay marriage and gay adoption, as we have seen in England, Argentina and other countries."

After years of deadlock, a debate on a gay unions bill started this week in the senate.

While stopping short of introducing gay marriage, it would allow same-sex couples to acquire similar rights to married couples, such as visiting rights in hospital or prison, or inheritance and widowed pension rights in case of death.

Its most controversial clause introduces stepchild adoptions, allowing the children of a gay person to be adopted by that person's partner. Critics see it as a stepping stone towards legalizing gay adoptions and gay surrogate parenting.

Gandolfini told the La Repubblica daily on Friday: "We don't want our children to grow up with the idea that there are different family models. We want children to know clearly that the family has a dad and a mum."

The Catholic Church did not officially endorse the protest, but Pope Francis - who famously said he is in no position to judge gay people - warned earlier this month that "there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union."

Several Italian Catholic priests and nuns flocked to the rally, which also attracted far-right groups and Catholic politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, including one member of Renzi's cabinet - Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, a centrist like Galletti, said a man in his position could not take part in street protests, but met Gandolfini before the rally and wrote on Twitter that he "fully" backed the initiative.

Renzi, a left-leaning Catholic who in 2007 backed public protests against a previous attempt to recognize gay unions, has said lawmakers were free to vote according to conscience, but indicated he hoped to deliver the reform "within weeks."

As well as by Renzi's Democrats, the bill is supported by leftist and radical opposition parties, but opposed by conservatives, including centrist partners in the governing coalition, and a handful of Catholics in the main ruling party.

Italian society seems split on the issue: Saturday's rally came seven days after pro-reform protests in almost 100 cities which, according to gay rights association Arcigay, were attended by more than 1 million people.

A poll published last week by conservative paper Il Giornale said 52 per cent of Italians were in favour of a law on gay unions, but 68 per cent were against stepchild adoptions. In a possible compromise, they may be scrapped from the reform.

If the Senate approves the bill in February, it will be passed on to the lower assembly for final approval in a matter of months, according to Renzi's plans. Rightist parties have pledged to call a referendum against the law if it goes into the statute books.

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