A spokesman for Pope Benedict XVI has said he is shocked by the threats made against the life of an Archbishop leading the Roman Catholic church in Italy’s opposition to gay rights.

Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco was sent a live bullet in the post last week.

A police guard had already been put in place last month after Archbishop Bagnasco’s cathedral in Genoa was attacked by vandals.

He caused outrage when he compared moves to give gay couples some rights to incest and child abuse.

A Vatican spokesman said the Pope had called the Archbishop to express his support.

The Pontiff also wrote to Archbishop Bagnasco, telling him to:

“continue in his work for the common good, defending and promoting those human and religious values without which it is impossible to build true, free and stable democracies.”

The Pope complained that the threats against the Archbishop and attack on the cathedral in Genoa: “disturb the serene coexistence of the civil and ecclesial community.”

Italy has been gripped by the conflict between traditionalists and progressives since Romano Prodi’s government unveiled proposals to recognise same-sex partnerships last February.

Members of Parliament have been strongly lobbied by the Catholic Church, with Pope Benedict calling the proposals “anti-church and anti-family.”

The President of Italy has condemned the attempts to intimidate the Archbishop, and called for respect on all sides of the divide.

The Roman Catholic church has called for a “Family Day” of protests in Rome on May 12th.

The Family Day manifesto does not specifically mention the laws, but focuses on calls for legislation promoting more traditional families.

“Only in the family founded on the stable union of a man and a woman and opened to a natural, orderly procreation, the offspring are born and raised in a community of love and life from which they can expect a civil, moral and religious education,” reads the event manifesto.

Coincidentally, the rally will be held on the 33rd anniversary of a referendum in which Italians voted for divorce to be legalised.

The rally will take place in Rome’s central San Giovanni Square.

Five gay groups have also announced a demonstration on May 12th, called “We are a family too.”

They will be marching for more social services for children and the elderly.