Croatia holds referendum on same-sex marriage ban

CROATIA: Polls have opened in Croatia for a controversial referendum on proposals to ban same-sex marriages.

Voters are deciding whether to approve changes to Croatia's constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

On Saturday hundreds of gay rights supporters marched through the capital, Zagreb, in protest at the vote.

A petition backing the referendum, drawn up by a Catholic group, received more than 700,000 signatures.

The referendum will ask the question: "Do you agree that marriage is matrimony between a man and a woman?"

If there is a "yes" vote, Croatia's constitution will be amended to ban gay marriages. Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union in July.

An opinion poll for state broadcaster HRT suggested that 59% of Croatians would vote "yes" in Sunday's vote, with 31% against.

Almost 90% of Croatia's population of 4.4 million are Roman Catholics and the Church has strongly urged a "yes" vote.

The vote has also received support from 104 members of Croatia's 151-seat parliament.

The government, human rights groups and prominent public figures have all spoken out against the referendum, urging people to vote no.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic argued that the referendum threatened people's right to happiness and choice. But leaders of the opposition HDZ party are behind the referendum.

Gay rights protesters, under a heavy police presence, marched for an hour through the city and unfurled a giant rainbow flag outside parliament.

"We urge voters... to protect minority rights so that no-one in Croatia becomes a second-class citizen," activist Sanja Juras told a crowd in Zagreb on Saturday.

The plan for a referendum was allowed parliamentary scrutiny after a Catholic group called "In the Name of the Family" gathered enough signatures to pass the required threshold of support.

"Marriage is the only union enabling procreation. This is the key difference between a marriage... and other unions," said Croatia's Cardinal Josip Bozanic in a letter read out in churches.

Correspondents say attitudes towards gay rights in Croatia - which joined the European Union in July - are slowly changing.

In Zagreb's first gay pride parade in 2002, dozens of participants were beaten up by extremists.

Parades are now held regularly although under heavy security.