Catholic churches around Germany were offering blessings for gay couples on Monday in a protest against the Vatican's refusal to approve same-sex partnerships.
More than 100 churches around the country have signed up to host services under the motto 'love wins' on or around May 10 in the scheme initiated by priests, deacons and volunteers.
At the services, all couples will be invited to be blessed - regardless of sexual orientation.
A rainbow flag is seen on the wall of a Catholic church as the building is open for same-sex couples to receive a blessing in Cologne, Germany, May 10
Vicar Wolfgang Rothe, left, blesses the couple Christine Walter, center, and Almut Muenster, right, during a Catholic service in St Benedict's Church in Munich, Sunday, May 9. Germany's Catholic progressives are openly defying a recent Holy See pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering exactly such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country
A couple hugs each other, after Brigitte Schmidt, a pastoral worker blesses the same-sex couple, at the Catholic St. Johannes XXIII church on May 10, 2021 in Cologne, Germany
'We raise our voices and say: We will continue to stand by people who commit themselves to a binding partnership and bless their relationship,' said a statement on the initiative's website.
Tanja Hollas, 41, an IT systems administrator from Hamm in western Germany, was planning to attend a blessing on Monday evening at the town's St Agnes Church with her partner Claudia, 57.
Protestant Tanja and Catholic Claudia have been together since 2017 and married since 2019.
'We are both people of faith, and we find it immensely important to testify to God that we are committed to each other, that we belong to each other,' Hollas told AFP.
A flyer that reads 'Love is all you need' is pictured after Brigitte Schmidt, a pastoral worker blesses a same-sex couple, at the Catholic St. Johannes XXIII church on May 10
The pair also wanted to show 'that people no longer have to hide', she said, adding: 'Love can never be wrong.'
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the powerful Vatican office responsible for defending church doctrine, handed down a ruling in March that same-sex unions could not be blessed despite their 'positive elements'.
The office wrote that while God 'never ceases to bless each of His pilgrim children in this world... he does not and cannot bless sin'.
While some prominent German bishops have supported the Vatican's stance, others accused the CDF of seeking to stifle theological debates which have been active among German Catholics in recent years.
Some German priests reacted to the announcement using a hashtag calling for 'disobedience' online.
A petition calling for the CDF's ruling to be ignored was signed by 2,600 priests and deacons in March, as well as 277 theologians.
Pastoral worker Brigitte Schmidt blesses the same-sex couple Ivonne Fuchs and Chantal Hoeffer during a ceremony in a Catholic church in Cologne, Germany, May 10
Wolfgang F. Rothe, a parish vicar in Munich, said it was 'a matter of course' for him to conduct a service blessing same-sex couples at the city's St Benedict Church on Sunday.
'I feel the need to pay off the debt the the Catholic Church has incurred by discriminating against and excluding homosexuals for decades,' said Rothe, 53.
Around 30 couples were blessed at the service, which had to be protected by police after the church received threatening emails, including some signed 'Dies Ire' (Day of Wrath), Rothe said.
In the run-up to the initiative, the German bishops' conference had spoken out strongly against the ceremonies.
Public actions of this kind were 'not a helpful signal' in view of the ongoing debates within the church, for example on attitudes to homosexuality, president Georg Baetzing said.
May 10 was chosen for the blessings because it is associated with God sending Noah a rainbow - a symbol often used in support of the LGBT community.
Pastoral worker Brigitte Schmidt blesses the same-sex couple Nini and Juliana Weinmeister during a ceremony in a Catholic church in Cologne, Germany, May 10
Churches in cities including Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich signed up for the initiative, planning traditional masses as well as open-air services and online events.
'We must finally recognise as a church that sexuality is part of life - and not only in a marriage between a man and a woman, but in all faithful, dignified and respectful love relationships,' said Birgit Mock, co-chair of the German Synodal Path's working group on sexuality.
At 23 million followers, the Catholic Church remains Germany's biggest religious community. But its pews are increasingly empty on Sundays and it struggles to recruit new priests.
The Synodal Path is a two-year project that aims to renew the Church and regain the public's trust, tackling controversial themes including a damaging child abuse crisis.
Traditionalists within the Church have already voiced opposition to such changes, chief among them the influential Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne.