Croatians protest ahead of anti-gay marriage referendum
Gay rights supporters in conservative and mainly Catholic Croatia staged protests on Saturday on the eve of a controversial referendum that could outlaw same-sex marriage in the EU's newest member state.
More than 1,000 people braved the cold and rainy weather to gather in a square in downtown Zagreb for a protest march against Sunday's vote, which they see as discriminatory.
"We urge voters... to protect minority rights so that no one in Croatia becomes a second class citizen," gay rights activist Sanja Juras told the crowd.
At the end of their hour-long march through the city centre, under a heavy police presence, the protesters unfurled a giant rainbow flag outside the parliament building.
Demonstrators taking part in the "I vote against" march also carried banners in rainbow colours, reading: "Homosexuality is not a choice but hatred is" and "Let's protect all loves".
Sunday's referendum on whether to amend the country's constitution to define marriage as a "union between a woman and a man" is the result of a Church-backed initiative. Croatia's constitution currently does not define marriage.
The vote has sparked a heated public debate, splitting the country's 4.2 million inhabitants.
Many conservatives in Croatia, which joined the European Union this year, began fearing that same-sex marriage would be allowed in the country after the centre-left government announced a bill enabling gay couples to register as "life partners".
In May, the Church-backed In the Name of the Family group collected over 700,000 signatures seeking a nationwide vote on gay marriage.
"We believe that marriage, children and family are so important issues that the whole society has to decide on them," the leader of the initiative, Zeljka Markic, told AFP.
The government, human rights activists and prominent public figures have all spoken out against the referendum, urging people to cast a 'no' vote.
"With this sentence in the constitution we would make lives of our fellow citizens, who are a sexual minority, more difficult," warned Damir Kovacic, who took part in Saturday's protest with his wife.
"And tomorrow a referendum about someone else's rights might be on the agenda," the 34-year-old electrical engineer told AFP.
But in a country where almost 90 percent of population are Roman Catholics, the Church has vehemently urged followers to vote 'yes'.
"Marriage is the only union enabling procreation," said Croatia's Cardinal Josip Bozanic in a letter read out in churches.
"This is the key difference between a marriage... and other unions."
The latest survey showed that 68 percent of Croatians on Sunday would vote 'yes' compared to 27 percent against.
"It is natural and normal that a child grows up in a marriage of a man and a woman," Katarina Mitermajer, a doctor in her 50s, who plans to vote 'yes', told AFP.
Attitudes towards gay rights have slowly been improving since Croatia's first Gay Pride parade was held in Zagreb in 2002, when dozens of participants were beaten up by extremists.
Pride parades are now staged regularly if still under strong security, while gay rights are more openly discussed in the media and people are becoming less fearful of "coming out".
In 2003 Croatia adopted a law recognising same-sex couples who have lived together for at least three years. Yet apart from official acknowledgement, the measure granted them few rights.
Sunday's vote is the first citizens-initiated referendum since Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Under Croatian law, a referendum does not require a majority voter turnout to be valid.