The zealous anti-divorce stance of the local Church means it is “divorced from the Catholic Church elsewhere in the world” – which insists on civil divorce before granting annulments – according to former Nationalist Party executive president Frank Portelli.

Dr Portelli waded into the divorce debate yesterday because he said he could no longer stand by and allow the truth to be distorted, particularly after hearing Gozo Bishop Mario Grech’s call for the faithful to “do their duty” in the divorce referendum on Saturday.

His reasoning comes from his application to have his first marriage annulled by the Catholic Church in England – where his first wife was living – 25 years ago.

He showed The Sunday Times a copy of the letter he received from the Northampton Diocesan Tribunal, which stated that since an annulment granted by the Church had no effect as far as UK civil law was concerned, “we always insist that a civil divorce must be obtained first”.

“I cannot imagine that the Catholic Church in England would ask me to commit a sin or do anything that is evil. But, unfortunately, representatives of the local Church are using their power in the wrong way and implying that seeking divorce is evil,” Dr Portelli said.

“Certainly there have been attempts to try to put the fear of God into people already having problems in their marriage. A Good Shepherd will follow his lost sheep; he will not try to scare them away,” he added.

Dr Portelli is also angry about Malta’s exceptional annulment and divorce status because, he said, it prevented citizens domiciled in Malta but married to foreigners from exercising their right to apply for an annulment abroad.

“Abroad you can get an annulment within 18 months, yet in Malta it can take eight years and in Gozo it can take 10 years. The local Church does not want people to apply for annulments abroad because it would mean giving up its power. It does not want to lose its influence over people’s lives,” Dr Portelli said.

Dr Portelli, a Nationalist candidate in the 2009 EU Parliament elections, also took aim at the PN, branding it “out of sync” with reality.

Citing the trend of ‘unknown fathers’ and the significant number of children born outside wedlock, he said the PN had failed to get to grips with the changing realities in modern society.

“Currently we don’t have divorce, so it is not divorce which has caused these problems. We have to make sure people are well-prepared for marriage and given help along the way. But putting the fear of God into them won’t work. In fact it has not worked. That is why we are in this situation,” he said.

However, he refused to criticise senior PN politicians who have invoked religion in the divorce debate.

“Everyone has a right to their own religious feelings. Personally I don’t flaunt mine in public and I would keep them separate,” he said.

Nor does Dr Portelli think that a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum would hurt the PN at the next election, despite the party’s strong anti-divorce stance.

“It would actually help the PN because then the problem is solved and it will not crop up again as an electoral issue. But if there is a ‘no’ vote it will hurt the party without any doubt, because it will not go away,” he said.

Dr Portelli urged the public to “strike a blow for freedom and separate the powers of the Church and the powers of the state. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s”.

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