Thousands join rally to defend the family

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Tens of thousands of people in Spain have rallied in defence of the traditional family in a country where the government has legalised gay marriage and facilitated divorce.

The crowd in the predominantly Roman Catholic country roared when Pope Benedict XVI appeared on giant television screens in Madrid in a live link from St Peter's Square in Vatican City.

The Pope, speaking during the Sunday Angelus prayer, said the family was "based on the unbreakable union of man and woman and represents the privileged environment where human life is welcomed and protected from the beginning to its natural end".

While praising the crowd, he added in Spanish: "It is worthwhile to work for the family and marriage because it is worthwhile to work for the human being, the most precious being created by God." He also urged parents to bring up their children with respect for the moral values that give dignity to human life.

It was Pope Benedict's latest appeal for the traditional family, a central theme of his papacy. The Vatican has campaigned against proposals to legalise gay marriage, and denounced the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for passing a law recognising same-sex unions.

The president of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, Ricardo Blazquez, said that "traditional family" was often interpreted as an anachronism. But he said the traditional family "is rooted in human nature itself". He added: "Its validity is a thing of yesterday, today and tomorrow."

The rally filled a central intersection of the capital, Plaza de Colon, and spilled into nearby streets. No crowd estimates were available.