06/01/2011 05:49 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2011

Malta's Divorce Referendum Kicks Off Legislation Process (PHOTOS)

The citizens of Malta, a primarily Roman Catholic island nation off the coast of Italy, voted Sunday in favor of legalizing divorce in a hotly contested referendum. According to the Times of Malta, 52.67 percent of people voted in favor of divorce.

The referendum kicks off the divorce legislation process, which begins in the Malta House of Representatives Wednesday. The government will pick a date for the bill to be debated, followed by a vote for Parliamentary approval, which is widely expected.

Malta is the last country in the European Union--and one of only three spots worldwide--where divorce is still illegal. Marital splits are also banned in the Philippines and Vatican City.

As it currently stands, Maltese couples looking to split must either divorce outside the country (which is legally recognized but can be expensive) or apply for an annulment, which requires couples prove that their marriage was never valid at all. Couples may also legally separate, which allows for the division of shared property, but does not allow partners to remarry. Reform began last year, when Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, a Member of Parliament who had separated from his wife but could not divorce, spoke out against the law.

Supporters of reform say that divorce is a fact of life regardless of whether it is recognized by the state--30 percent of Maltese marriages end in separation. Opponents, many of whom are aligned with the Catholic Church, believe that divorce will tear families apart, and some have threatened that reformers should not receive Communion. Though the Maltese church's official stance is to abstain from campaign debates, Catholic campaign groups funded billboards throughout the country that read "Christ Yes, Divorce No."

"The church has mobilized against us," Michael Falzon, a key member of Malta's pro-divorce movement, told Canadian newspaper The Star. "They are worried about losing power, and are running a dirty campaign. They have been issuing threats about this world and the next."

Malta's Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who has openly opposed to the reform, said that though he was not happy with the results of the referendum, he would work on legislation to legalize divorce. "Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected," he said in a televised speech.