President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, said this weekend that he wants Congress to legalise de facto civil unions in an attempt to “regulate and protect” more than two million unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian couples.

But President Pinera stressed the proposal would not in any way make gay marriage legal in Chile. He said his belief that “marriage in its essence and nature is between a man and a woman” had not changed.

What the proposed bill will do is “protect and safeguard” the civil rights of couples who for whatever reason, remain unmarried, while at the same time “safeguarding the dignity of those couples, whether of the opposite or even the same sex,” he said to El Mercurio newspaper.

The potential legalisation of domestic partnerships was one of Mr Pinera’s key campaign proposals. Inevitably, it roused debate and dissent within his conservative coalition.

The Catholic Church, which carries great power and influence in Chile, has said it will not recognise the “aberration” of gay marriage.