VALLETTA, Malta, May 30, 2011 ( – In a referendum Saturday, citizens of the staunchly Roman Catholic Mediterranean island of Malta voted 52.6 percent in favor of legalizing divorce.

With a population of just over 400,000, the country is about 98 percent Roman Catholic and was one of only three remaining countries – along with the Philippines and Vatican City – where divorce was illegal.  Abortion still remains illegal in the country.

The Catholic Bishops of Malta had urged citizens to vote “no” to divorce, maintaining that divorce was the “wrong solution” to marital problems.  “A choice in favour of divorce,” wrote the bishops in a pastoral letter last week, “leads to the further destruction of marriage and the family and, as a consequence, the destruction of values and the quality of life.”

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had also officially aligned his party with the teaching of the Catholic Church. “The referendum outcome,” he said, “is not what I wished for, but the will of the majority will be respected and parliament will enact legislation for the introduction of divorce.”

Meanwhile, Deborah Schembri, chair of the “Yes” campaign, said in an interview, “The Maltese have voted to give themselves more civil rights.”

Prior to Saturday’s vote, a turnout of 72 percent of eligible voters, the opposing parties were closely matched in a campaign that could easily have gone either way.  Lawmakers will now introduce legislation to allow couples who have lived separately for at least four years to file for a divorce.  While previously able to obtain a certificate of separation or, for Catholics, file for a marriage annulment, Maltese citizens have been unable to remarry.

The Catholic bishops issued a statement Saturday before the results of the vote, apologizing to those who may have felt hurt by the Church’s stance in the past weeks leading up to the referendum.

“To all those who had an active role on both sides, we wish to express regret if anyone felt hurt by words or actions from members of the Church,” said the statement from Malta’s bishops. “Also, we assure everyone that we unconditionally forgive those who we feel have hurt us.”

The bishops reaffirmed, however, that the Church’s concern has always been to encourage strong families and that divorce is not the answer to marital problems. The Church, they wrote, wishes to see a higher level of commitment in marrying couples and promises to reflect on and improve aid for struggling families.