Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has issued an unprecedented apology to the LGBT community – as he passed a law giving same-sex couples legal recognition.

The Greek Parliament last night voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new civil unions law, which will provide legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples for the first time.

The law was backed by the dominant left-wing Syriza party, of which Mr Tsipras is head.

Speaking in Parliament after the vote, he said: “With the legalization of civil partnership for same-sex couples, a cycle of backwardness and shame for the Greek state is closing.

“[It is one] of denial and marginalization of a large part of our fellow citizens, who were not allowed to live together with their partner and enjoying basic rights and which led the Greece to convictions by the European Court of Human Rights.”

He told lawmakers that the day is “not befitting celebrations but of an apology” to people whose human rights have been blocked until now, hailing their right “to stand on an equal footing to human suffering before the law.

The PM added: “This bill should have passed years ago, and maybe even months ago, as far as our government is concerned.”

Greece still lags behind most of Western Europe on LGBT rights, and is yet to pass a number of basic reforms – such as same-sex adoption, or a gender recognition law that doesn’t require trans people to be sterilised.

The powerful Greek Orthodox Church is mostly opposed to LGBT rights reforms.