Valletta, Malta - Malta should hold a referendum on divorce on May 28, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said on Thursday night, paving the way for a hot debate in the Roman Catholic island.
A Gonzi letter on the matter was announced shortly after the Labour opposition gave notice of a motion in Parliament calling for a debate on a divorce referendum.
The decision was prompted by government backbencher Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who presented a surprise bill in Parliament. The move shook his Christian Democrat Nationalist Party and split the country down the middle - pitting conservative and religious groups against liberals and many separated couples.
For the last few years, many have called on the government to really live up to its secular name. Together with the Philippines, Malta remains the only country in the world with no divorce legislation.
Newspaper surveys have shown a small majority objecting to the introduction of divorce legislation. Egged on by the influential church, many believe the introduction of divorce will exacerbate the rate of separations.
On Saturday, the Nationalist Party approved an anti-divorce resolution, which infuriated its liberal supporters. But the ruling Nationalists' one-seat majority in Parliament has put Gonzi in a corner.
Gonzi wrote to the opposition leader on Thursday night, suggesting the May 28 date. Labour leader Joseph Muscat has called for an earlier referendum date.