ROME (Reuters) - Rome's center-left mayor on Saturday recognized the validity of 16 gay marriages performed outside Italy, the first such ceremony in the capital, sparking an angry reaction from the interior minister and the country's Roman Catholic Church.
"Today is a splendid day," Mayor Ignazio Marino said in Rome's city hall where he registered the marriages of 11 male and six female couples who had wed abroad.
Although gay marriage is illegal in Italy, some cities have allowed gay couples who legally wed in other countries to register their unions in city halls when they return, just as heterosexual couples who marry outside Italy can do.
The recognition is significant because it can help a partner inherit the other's estate and affects health benefits, insurance and pensions.
The issue is highly charged in a country where the Church holds considerable sway over politics, and it divides the left-right coalition government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The ceremony in Rome was by far the most high-profile recognition so far. It was applauded by members of Renzi's center-left Democratic Party who said it was time for Italy to legislate to give legal status to same-sex partnerships, but it was seen on the right as deliberate provocation.
A poll taken last year showed gay marriage was supported by just a quarter of the population in Italy. The same survey showed more than 85 percent backed the recognition of so-called "civil unions" to give same-sex partners more rights.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, from the small New Center-Right party, said that in transcribing the documents Marino was doing no more than "signing autographs." Maurizio Gasparri, a senator from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's opposition Forza Italia party, said he was "defying the law" and should resign.
Italy's Episcopal Conference, the national association of bishops, issued a statement in similar tones.
"Such arbitrary presumption, put on show right here in Rome at the present time, is unacceptable," it said, in an apparent reference to a major assembly of bishops from around the world which has been going on at the Vatican for the last two weeks.
A small group of protesters outside the city hall shouted "Shame" and "Buffoons" and held up placards saying "No to Gay Marriage."
Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky