Two deputies with Italy's small but vocal Radical Party caused an uproar among legislators in this predominantly Catholic country on Wednesday when they placed dolls representing two gay couples in Parliament's nativity scene.

The gesture by deputies Bruno Mellano and Donatella Porretti was intended as a show of support for a law that would give unmarried couples, including gays, some of the same rights as married couples. However, it prompted swift and stern condemnation from shocked legislators on all sides.

"Vulgar and unacceptable," said a statement by women deputies with the rightist, opposition Forza Italia party.

Pro-Vatican politician Rosy Bindi, who is Family Policy minister in the center-left government, which includes the Radical Party, called the move "a useless provocation against the nativity of the Chamber of Deputies that hurts us as Christians and as citizens of this country," in comments carried by the ANSA agency.

Nativity scenes are the traditional focal point of the Italian Christmas, with families working for days on elaborate settings which, along with the main figures, often include village scenes, artistic lighting and even fountains with running water.

The four dolls in question included dolls embracing and carrying a banner that read "Gay weddings like those in Zapatero's Spain in Italy as well" — a reference to the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which legalized gay marriage last year.

The dolls were removed within minutes, according to the ANSA news agency, and it was not immediately clear how many people actually saw them.

The issue of legal rights for unmarried couples is divisive in Italy, which is home to the Vatican and is still influenced by Roman Catholic Church positions. About 90 percent of Italy's 58 million citizens are at least nominally Catholic, and the Vatican has criticized proposals to give rights to unmarried couples as an attack against the traditional family.

"We hope that Parliament will approve as soon as possible a law for the recognition of civil unions as the gay couples in the nativity scene have demanded," Poretti and Mellano said in a statement.