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Recognition of same-sex marriage follows decades of struggle in Greece

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Years before starting her own family, Stella Belia was already leading a tireless campaign for legal recognition. Her fight could finally be over this week – just months before her twins’ 17th birthday.

Greek lawmakers are expected to legalize same-sex marriage in a parliamentary vote on Thursday, with a rare show of multi-stakeholder collaboration.

The approval would make Greece the first Orthodox Christian countries to take this step, thereby eliminating many legal obstacles for same-sex couples who already have or wish to have children.

“I’ve been fighting for this since I discovered who I was,” says Belia, a 57-year-old drama teacher with a gruff voice and easy laugh.

“And it’s a great relief to say that we’ve finally made it,” she said. “But it is tiring, very tiring to fight for something that is an obvious right – to suffer for something that others are simply granted – and to have to fight so hard to get it.”

A protester reacts during a rally against same-sex marriage, in the central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Belia separated from her partner when her sons were 11, but she considers her the boys’ other mother.

Although civil partnerships were extended to same-sex couples in Greece almost a decade ago, only the biological parents of children from such relationships are currently recognized as legal guardians.

FILE - Stefanos Kasselakis, leader of the main opposition Syriza party, speaks to his supporters outside the party's headquarters in Athens, Monday, September 25, 2023. The Greek center-right government's plans to legalize civil marriage between Same-sex people received a major boost after the left-wing opposition leader pledged his party's support.  Syriza leader Stefanos Kasselakis said he would ask his lawmakers to vote for the proposal when it goes to parliament, even as he warned on Thursday (January 11, 2024) that it did not go far enough in matters of parental rights.  (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis, File)
FILE - Two women kiss in front of a rainbow flag, a symbol of the gay rights movement, during the Gay Pride parade in central Athens, Saturday June 14, 2014. The central Greek government law is accelerating its legalization timetable.  sexual marriage despite growing opposition from the powerful Orthodox Church.  Government officials said on Wednesday (January 24, 2024) that the bill would be put to a vote by mid-February.  (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, file)

The issue of children’s rights, including the high-profile plight of cancer survivors in same-sex relationships, helped push public opinion to narrowly vote in favor of the bill sponsored by the conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

But it also sparked a strong reaction from the country’s Orthodox Church. Representing the dominant faith in Greece, the Church says the proposed marriage law would confuse parental roles and weaken the traditional family.

The church asked lawmakers to reconsider their decision in a public appeal also read during Sunday services.

Several prominent bishops have taken a harder line, warning that they would refuse to baptize the children of same-sex couples. They have joined forces with far-right political parties and traditionalist groups to organize public protests.

Protesters gather during a rally against same-sex marriage, in central Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, Sunday, February 11, 2024. More than 1,500 demonstrators gathered in central Athens to oppose to legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in Greece.  .  The bill is expected to be voted on in Parliament within a few days.  (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Protesters gather during a rally against same-sex marriage, in the central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Protester Chara Giannakantonaki said she felt compelled to attend a rally outside Parliament last Sunday.

“Every minority already has its rights guaranteed. There is no problem. They don’t need (homosexual) marriage. They simply want to desecrate what has remained sacred in Greece: our Church, our families and our children,” she said. “But children are a red line and we will never accept that.”

The Mitsotakis government faces dissension among conservatives over the bill and will need the support of the centrist and left-wing opposition to secure the minimum of 151 votes in the 300-member parliament.

Dimitris Mavros, chief executive of market research firm MRB Hellas, said the bill’s timing appeared to have been carefully calculated: support a measure that bolsters Mitsotakis’s centrist credentials, but the controversy is likely to die down ahead of the European Union-wide elections. in June.

According to Mavros, Greeks in 2024 showed a sharp increase in their financial anxiety, with their worries reflected in recent strikes and ongoing protests by farmers.

“I think the farmers’ (protests) and the high prices — and the issues that hurt people’s pockets — are going to overshadow the issue of same-sex couples,” he said. “We will probably get through this calmly.”

Protesters shout slogans during a rally against same-sex marriage, in central Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, Sunday, February 11, 2024. More than 1,500 protesters gathered in central Athens to protest oppose legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in Greece.  The bill is expected to be voted on in Parliament within a few days.  (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Protesters shout slogans during a rally against same-sex marriage, in the central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, Sunday, February 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Chrysa Gkotsopoulou and Elena Kotsifi, both engineers, told their families and colleagues for years that they were roommates and only dated after moving to England for work in 2015.

They now have a young daughter, Ariadne, and all three travel to Greece using their British passports.

“We quickly realized that England offered us opportunities as a couple that we had never imagined before.” Kotsifi, 38, said. “We could be ourselves.”

They traveled to Athens this weekend to celebrate the expected approval of the bill and said that, for the first time in almost a decade, they were now considering returning home as a possibility.

They hope to join campaigner Belia and others on Thursday evening in the public gallery of Parliament and celebrations are expected to follow.

“If there is room for us (in Parliament), we would like to go there,” Gkotsopoulou said. “We feel joy, joy and pride that Greece is on the right side of history.” ___ Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed.

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