Will Malta finally decide that divorce should be legal?

Every Wednesday as the sun sets over Malta, Angelik Caruana stands on a hilltop outside the southern village of Birzebbuga and relays what he claims is the word of the Virgin Mary.

Her message, Mr Caruana told a crowd of devout Catholics, was to fight against divorce.

"I saw her as well on this mountain, on the cross," said Anthony Ellul, a retired mechanic who came with his wife from a nearby village to pray for their sick son. "Our lady is crying because of divorce."

At any other time over the five years that Mr Caruana has been standing on the mound, he and the small gathering that come to listen could have been dismissed as religious eccentrics.

But coming just before 28 May, when this deeply conservative Catholic nation of 412,000 people will vote in a referendum to introduce divorce legislation, his routine has become part of a larger campaign to persuade Catholics in voting against the motion.

Elsewhere, the only countries without provision for divorce are the Vatican and the Philippines.

In Malta, the Church and the Government hopes to retain the status quo. Writing in the Malta Independent last month, the country's Finance Minister, Tonio French, claimed: "I am sure Our Lady is very sorrowful that Malta is considering divorce."

Malta's population is some 95 percent Catholic with more than half attending church regularly. The local Church has thrown its considerable weight, money and volunteers behind the No campaign. The ruling conservative Nationalist Party is also against divorce (the opposition hasn't any official position).

It may be working: support for the Yes vote has fallen sharply and the referendum is now too close to call, according to a survey by Malta Today this month.

Divorce wasn't on the political agenda of either the ruling or opposition parties, but last summer a backbencher surprised his party – and indeed the nation – when he introduced a private member's bill on the topic.

"It was about time for us to at least discuss divorce," said Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, the MP from the ruling party responsible for the referendum.

The No campaign claims divorce will lead to a fracturing of Maltese society and an increase in the number of failed marriages. According to Eurostat, the EU's statistics division, one in every five marriages broke down in 2008. "From a social and civil point of view, introducing divorce is a disaster," said Father Anton Gouder, a senior Church official.

Malta provides for legal separations and annulments with the result that a large number of couples set up home and have children while still legally married to the spouses from whom they are separated. The Maltese National Statistics office found that 27 per cent of children were born outside of wedlock in 2009.

The anti-divorce sentiment is not just restricted to the Church and older, more conservative citizens. Angelo Micallef, a 25-year-old law student and spokesperson for the anti-divorce youth group "No with respect to the future" said it would weaken both society and the family, adversely affect children and be economically unsustainable if a man has to sustain two families. Instead of divorce, Mr Micallef advocated pre-marriage counselling sponsored by the state.

"There is nothing in the way Maltese children are raised to give them the idea of a secular identity," said Daphne Caruana Galizia, a prominent columnist. "Being Catholic is very much mixed in with the identity of being Maltese. It's part of our Christian European identity and because we're so close to north Africa, it differentiates us."

While the No campaign has tried to convince the public that divorce legislation will send married couples scurrying to the nearest court, the proposed law remains highly conservative.

Divorce will only be granted if the court is satisfied that the couple have been separated for four out of the last five years, the marriage has broken down irreparably, and issues of maintenance and children are adequately settled. The question on the ballot paper will outline these conditions.

The law is based on a similar Irish proposal of 1995, which saw divorce being introduced in Ireland.

"I literally took the Irish law and tried to adapt it with all the lack of expertise I have as a lawyer," said Mr Pullicino Orlando, who is a dentist by profession.

Divorce has been a favourite topic of discussion among the Maltese for years and many already have firm views on the topic. According to the Malta Today survey, the cost of living and utility bills are a more pressing concern.

In a way, the referendum and the campaign have become about something larger. The state is offering return tickets to Malta for €35 (£30) from various European cities to encourage citizens to come home and vote, at a cost of €1m to the Maltese taxpayer.

According to Ms Caruana Galizia, "it's no longer about divorce. It's become a battle between those who want Malta to be secular, to enter the real world, and those who want to preserve that mythical Maltese identity."

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