Journalists and activist groups are blasting the Vatican for what they say is its "grotesque" opposition to a U.N. declaration on gay rights — even though only a small collection of countries has supported the measure.
The Roman Catholic Church is facing a barrage of protests and searing editorials for opposing a French-sponsored decree that calls for an end to discrimination based on sexual or gender identity. The U.N. hopes to abolish summary executions, arbitrary arrests and "the deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights" of gays.
The Church's opposition to the measure has enraged gay-rights activists, who are mobilizing nationwide protests at Catholic sites in Italy. Members of Italy's largest gay-rights group, Arcigay, gathered inside the Vatican on Saturday, hanging nooses around their necks as they accused the Church of being an "accomplice in the martyrdom" of homosexuals.
• Click here to see photos from the protests.
At issue for the Church are a few phrases placed in the document by its French drafters and readily approved of by the European Union, which has unanimously sponsored it. Nations may add their signatures, but they cannot vote against it. There is no debate and no rewriting of the declaration.
The Vatican worries that provisions in the document — the emphasis on "social and cultural rights" — could be used to pressure countries to embrace gay marriage, which the Catholic Church rejects.
The Vatican's permanent observer at the U.N., Archbishop Celestino Migliore, announced the Holy See's opposition in an interview with a French Catholic news service. "[S]tates which do not recognize same-sex unions as 'matrimony' will be pilloried and made an object of pressure," he said.
The Vatican is hardly alone in opposing the declaration — as of Tuesday, 54 nations had signed it, which means the Holy See is currently keeping company with close to three-quarters of the 192 member-states in the General Assembly who have not signed on. France expects more countries to join when the declaration is formally put before the assembly on Dec. 18.
But critics have seized upon the Church, assailing it for not taking a stronger stance on rights for gay men and women. "I find it very disturbing that the Vatican ... is not willing to speak out about LGBT people being jailed or being tortured," said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Rights program at Human Rights Watch.
An editorial in the Italian daily La Stampa called the Vatican's reasoning "grotesque," while La Repubblica said the Vatican's stance "leaves one dumbstruck." Before its protest at the Vatican, Arcigay told FOXNews.com that it hopes to pressure the 2,000-year-old body to change its doctrine on homosexuality.
"We hope the demonstration ... changes a bit the stance of the Church and the question of homosexuals," said Fabrizio Marazzo, president of the Rome chapter of Arcigay.
Catholic groups say the protests and editorials are part of a campaign to silence the Church on issues where it is considered politically incorrect.
"The fact that there are people who want to silence the Church is disturbing. If people want to disagree with the Church it's one thing, but when you start this kind of name-calling it is intended to have a chilling effect," said Susan Fani, a spokeswoman for the Catholic League.
The Vatican won't have an official say inside the U.N., where it lacks an official seat — though it is signatory to some human rights treaties and its influence is widely felt.
"[Vatican opposition] does have an effect — you can see this across Latin America, where the Vatican is enormously influential with governments and within society," said Long. "That silence without violence has an effect: it makes people feel that they can go on doing what they want."
France, the sponsoring nation, has been much quieter on the dustup.
"We're not surprised by [Vatican opposition]," said Axel Cruau, spokesman for the French delegation to the U.N. "We don't want to engage in some sort of fight with the [Vatican office]," he said, noting that the declaration "will not itself create new rights … it will empower people to do things.
"We thought it was important to launch [the declaration] because homosexuality is still a crime in quite a few countries," he told FOXNews.com. "It's more than a shame — it's unacceptable."
To anyone sitting in jail for the crime of homosexuality, the U.N. declaration is worth about as much as the paper it's printed on. It's a non-binding and toothless statement that lacks the force of international law, though human rights groups hope it will be a step toward binding laws.
Dozens of member-states at the U.N. do not grant even basic human rights to homosexuals, and rights watchers estimate that between 80 and 90 nations have laws against homosexual conduct.
Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, which will sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, both prescribe the death penalty for gays. And Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso, which will get seats on the council in the next three years, all punish homosexuals with jail.
"It's kind of a general issue with the Human Rights Council that a lot of human rights violators still get to sit in its seats," Long told FOXNews.com. "That's a running problem."
Courtney Walsh contributed to this report from Rome.