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The Vatican's top official on family policy has opened slightly to the possibility of rights for gay civil unions, although he also stressed that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
The remarks from Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, wee made at a Vatican press conference on Monday and were quoted in Italian press on Tuesday.
"Marriage is a clear legal dimension. There are then multiple other types of non-family cohabitation for which solutions should be found in terms of individual law and in my view also in terms of property law," Paglia said.
His comments were widely seen as a reference to gay couples.
"I think this is a terrain that politicians should begin to approach," said the archbishop, adding that legal rights for non-traditional families would "prevent injustice against the weakest".
"This seems an important path to pursue," he said.
The Italian prelate also spoke out against homophobia in the Middle East and Africa, saying that in countries where being gay is considered a crime "this should be fought against".
Gay rights activists gave mixed reactions to his comments.
"For the first time a senior prelate recognises that there should be rights also for gay couples and that there are many countries in the world where being gay is a crime," said Franco Grillini, the head of Gaynet.
But Aurelio Mancuso, head of Equality Italia, said the type of legal protection that Paglia was talking about would mean "keeping the status quo, in other words an absence of rights".
"The only chance is a clear law that recognises the rights and duties of gay couples, in terms of property and inheritance, medical assistance, social welfare," he said.
Paglia has been in charge of his Vatican ministry for a year and is considered more open and modern than his predecessors, particularly on accepting the reality of the daily lives of many Catholics.
The British and French parliaments are currently examining draft laws to legalise gay marriage.
The Catholic Church considers homosexuality sinful but is opposed to any discrimination against gays.