Overwhelmingly Catholic Malta has voted in favour of legalising divorce, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced Sunday after a referendum in one of the only two countries where it is still banned.
Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce ahead of Saturday's non-binding referendum, said it was now up the Mediterranean archipelago's parliament to legalise the dissolution of marriage.
"This is not the result that I wished for, but the will of the people has to be respected and parliament should enact a law for the introduction of divorce," the conservative prime minister said.
The divorce measure was passed by a majority of 53.2 percent of those who cast ballots, although nearly a quarter of eligible voters did not bother to go to the polls, election officials said.
Apart from the Vatican city-state, Malta is one of only two countries in the world -- the Philippines is the other -- that bans divorce. Chile was the last country to legalise divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.
Saturday's non-binding referendum asked the island's 306,000 mainly Catholic voters whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.
Legal separation is widespread in the European Union's smallest member state, but there are many legal obstacles to re-marrying.
"The yes vote has won and we urge parliamentarians to vote a bill for the introduction of divorce," said lawyer Deborah Schembri, who led the 'yes' campaign.
Arthur Galea Salomone, spokesman for the anti-divorce campaign, admitted "the people's choice was clear, they opted for the introduction of divorce."
Divorce legislation is likely to squeeze through parliament as Gonzi's ruling Nationalist Party has the slimmest of majorities -- one seat -- and analysts have said at least one of his MPs had backed the yes campaign.
The Roman Catholic Church, which looms large over the archipelago where 95 percent of the population claim the faith, did not campaign officially in the referendum.
However, Valletta's Archbishop Paul Cremona had warned churchgoers in a letter they faces a choice between building and destroying family values.
"By this vote, the citizen will either build or destroy. A choice in favour of permanent marriage is an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed," said the letter, read out at masses.
In addition, priests have reportedly threatened to refuse communion to those who vote "yes" in the referendum.
Marriages can only be annulled by the Catholic Church's Ecclesiastical Tribunal in a complex and rare procedure that takes around eight years.
The only exception to the divorce ban is for Maltese married to foreign nationals or Maltese who are permanent residents abroad.