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Thousands Rally in Italy for Gay Rights

Activists demonstrate in favor of rights for gay couples prior to a debate to be opened in Italian parliament to change laws on recognition of rights for same-sex couples, in Rome, Jan. 23, 2016.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities across Italy on Saturday to call for legal recognition for gay couples and their children.

From Milan in the north to Palermo in the south, supporters of civil unions carried rainbow-colored flags, balloons and signs asking Italy to "wake up" to the need for a law on civil unions.

Italy is the only major Western European country not to have enacted civil union legislation allowing same-sex couples to have their relationships acknowledged and protected by law.

On Thursday, the Italian Senate will begin debate on a bill that would legalize civil partnership for gay as well as unmarried heterosexual couples. Many opponents see the bill as a first step that would lead to the legalization of gay marriage.

Opponents of the bill are planning a counterdemonstration on January 30 at Rome's Circus Maximus.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the self-styled "Family Day," organized by Catholic groups.