Maltese parliament passes divorce law

Overwhelmingly Catholic island state approves law allowing couples to end marriage after legal separation of four years.

    The Yes camp celebrated after a referendum in March when a majority voted in favour of allowing divorce [AFP]

    Malta's parliament has adopted a law authorising divorce  in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation and is now set for formal approval by the president.

    The law, which is likely to come into force in October, was passed on Monday by 52 in favour and 11 against with five abstentions.

    It followed a referendum in May which voted in favour of the change despite the opposition of Lawrence Gonzi, the prime minister, and his Nationalist Party.

    The Mediterranean island state, which has a church every square kilometre, was the only European Union nation without divorce legislation. The Philippines and the Vatican are the only two other sovereign states in the world that outlaw divorce.

    "The amendments to the original Divorce Bill had improved the law but this does not mean I'm happy with it," Gonzi told reporters after the vote.

    He added that he would feel "uncomfortable" about the introduction of divorce in Malta, which is "why I voted against it".

    He had, however, allowed his party members in parliament to vote according to their conscience and 19 of the Nationalist Party's 35 deputies ended up voting in favour.

    Joseph Muscat, the opposition leader, hailed the vote but said he was disappointed that the prime minister had voted against the people's will in parliament.

    The law will allow divorce after legal separation of four years. Much of the debate in parliament was over maintenance for children of divorcees.

    The Roman Catholic Church, which looms large over the archipelago where 95 per cent of the population is Catholic, did not campaign officially in May's non-binding referendum in which 53 per cent of voters cast ballots in favour.

    However, Paul Cremona, archbishop of the capital Valletta, had warned churchgoers in a letter they faced a choice between building and destroying family values.

    In addition, priests reportedly threatened to refuse communion to those who voted "yes". Abortion is still banned in Malta.

    "The Church's word is no longer heeded," Father Alfred Micallef wrote in an editorial for the Times of Malta on Sunday.

    "Few could understand why society should deny divorce to those who wanted it as long as it was not imposed on all," he added.

    Legal separation is widespread in Malta but marriages currently can only be annulled by the Catholic Church's Ecclesiastical Tribunal in a complex and rare procedure that takes around eight years.

    The only exception to the divorce ban is for Maltese who are married to foreign nationals or Maltese who are permanent residents abroad.

    Before Malta, Chile was the last country to legalise divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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