The president of Chile has proposed legalising civil unions for gay and straight couples.

Sebastian Pinera said that all couples deserve “respect, dignity and support of the state” in a speech this week.

The bill, which must be approved by Congress, would give gay couples and straight unmarried couples the same inheritance and social welfare rights as married couples.

Couples who have been together for over a year will be able to enter a legal contract called the Life Partner Agreement (Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja), if it is passed.

Mr Pinera said he did not support marriage for gay couples

“I deeply believe that marriage is by nature between a man and a woman, but that conviction does not prevent me from recognising that other forms of affective relationships exist,” he said.

Opposition to gay marriage is widespread in Chile, with the Catholic Church an influential leader.

Chile only legalised divorce in 2004.