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Could Italy finally recognize same-sex unions?

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Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

(Read caption) Friars hold banners reading ' No to civil Unions' in Rome, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. Thousands of people were gathering in Rome’s Circus Maximus for a pro-family protest that opposes proposed legislation permitting civil unions for same-sex couples and legal recognition for their families.

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Behind signs that read "We defend our children,” hundreds of thousands of Italians congregated in Rome Saturday to protest a bill that would legalize same-sex unions.

Italy is currently the only country in western Europe that has yet to recognize gay marriage or civil unions, largely due to the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church. But next week, lawmakers in the Italian senate will vote on a law that will extend all the legal rights under marriage to same-sex couples in civil unions, as well as to unmarried heterosexual couples.

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“We have a lot of grandchildren; their future is ruined if marriage is destroyed,” a protester named Ida told The Guardian. “Children have a right to have a mother and a father. To grow up healthy, they need a male and a female figure.”

In addition to civil partnership, the proposed law will give the same-sex couples the right to inherit partners’ pensions and adopt their children – perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill. Those participating in Saturday’s rally, dubbed “Family Day,” have also expressed concern that civil unions will open the door to full-fledged gay marriage, which the bill comes short of accepting.

"There can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union," Pope Francis said last week, despite his past expressions of empathy towards gay people.

The demonstrators Saturday crowded into Rome's Circus Maximus, a chariot-racing venue from 2,000 years ago. Sources say up to 2 million people attended the event.

“In Italy the constitutional court said marriage is only between a man and a woman,” Gianfranco Amato, one of Family Day’s organizers said. “This law is a scam, because it requires changing the constitution."

Many other Catholic-majority countries around the world, such as Ireland and Spain, have passed marriage equality legislation in recent years. Even in Argentina, where the pope served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, same-sex marriage was legalized nearly six years ago.

This isn’t Italy’s first attempt in passing the law. In 2007, politicians ultimately rejected a same-sex marriage bill under the pressure of the Catholic church. But the religious influence surrounding the country is weaker now, experts say.

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Last weekend, proponents of bill had rallies of their own in more than 100 cities. While the bill was debated on Thursday, a group of people showed their support outside the senate building by chanting “Wake up, Italy!” and holding images of alarm clocks.

"Last year, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Italy for failing to protect the rights of same sex couples," Gabriele Piazzoni, the leader of Italy's LGBT organization, ARCIGAY, told NBC news.

"If a gay couple gets married abroad, comes to Italy, and their rights are not recognized, they can get sue the government for 5,000 euros,” he added. “And the state has to give it to them, because Europe recognized it's a violation of their rights. This is one of the reasons the government is proposing this law, because they are being pressured to do it by the European Union."

The bill is widely anticipated to pass in early February, despite the outcry against it.