Thousands of Christians marched through South African cities last weekend protesting a bill that would make the nation the first on the continent to legalise gay marriage.

The protests, spearheaded by the conservative African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), came before a parliamentary committee holds hearings on a bill today that would accord same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

At the parliament building in Cape Town, Reuters reports that protesters opposed to the Civil Unions Bill, calling themselves Marriage Alliance, presented a memorandum to home affairs portfolio committee chairman Patrick Chauke that demanded a constitutional amendment to “protect” traditional marriage.

The Marriage Alliance is made up of about 100 churches, denominations and religious bodies, including the Catholic, Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches, Rhema Ministries, His People Christian Church, and the Zion Christian Church.

Simultaneous marches were staged in other cities, including Johannesburg.

“The institution of marriage has been the cornerstone of civilized society for thousands of years,” said Steve Swart, an African Christian Democratic Party member of parliament, reports Reuters.

“Traditional marriages, in which one man and one woman create a lasting community, pass on time-honoured family values to secure the future and, therefore, are worthy of protection.”

South Africa’s cabinet approved the bill last month after the country’s highest court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny gay people the right to marry.

The court gave parliament one year to change the law.

According to South African Press Association, Chairman Chauke told the crowd that although he was a “staunch believer,” he could not let his personal views influence the treatment of the proposed legislation. Chauke is from the governing African National Congress party.

He said he believed the bill “balanced” the need of those “who want to get into some kind of a union.”

“But I think as a church we have a responsibility. And we have demonstrated our responsibility today,” Chauke told the SAPA.

According to Reuters, gay rights activists applauded the move, while religious groups, including the Catholic, Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches, opposed altering the current law, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

If enacted, the bill would place South Africa, which is predominantly Christian, among a handful of mostly European countries that allow same-sex marriage and make it the first to do so in Africa, where homosexuality remains largely taboo.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada already sanction gay marriages. Many African countries, however, outlaw homosexuality and turn a blind eye to the persecution of gays and lesbians.

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