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Prime Minister Jean Chrétien risks burning in hell if he makes same-sex marriage legal in Canada, a Roman Catholic bishop from Alberta warned yesterday.

"He doesn't understand what it means to be a good Catholic," Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary said in an interview. "He's putting at risk his eternal salvation. I pray for the Prime Minister because I think his eternal salvation is in jeopardy. He is making a morally grave error and he's not being accountable to God."

Bishop Henry was commenting on the Liberal government's proposed same-sex marriage legislation on the eve of the Vatican releasing new guidelines for bishops and Catholic politicians on gay unions.

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At the same time, U.S. President George W. Bush declared yesterday for the first time that the legal protections of marriage should apply only to the union of a man and a woman. Moving in the opposite direction from Ottawa, Mr. Bush said U.S. government lawyers are exploring measures to legally define marriage in that way.

"I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "I think we ought to codify that one way or the other."

Pope John Paul and top Vatican officials have been speaking out for months against proposals to legalize same-sex marriages in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.

The Vatican's instructions to Catholic politicians on same-sex marriages, being released today, state: "When recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."

Mr. Chrétien is a Roman Catholic, as are Liberal leadership candidates Paul Martin and Sheila Copps.

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said yesterday that Mr. Chrétien's primary responsibility is to serve the Canadian public - not his church.

"As Prime Minister of Canada, he has the moral responsibility to protect the equality of Canadians," said Thoren Hudyma, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office. "There needs to be a separation between the church and state."

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Mr. Martin also told reporters in Toronto yesterday that his responsibilities as an MP "obviously must take in a wider perspective" than his faith. He added that under the proposed federal law, "no church, not my church, no temple, no mosque, no synagogue will be asked to perform marriages in any way other than as they see fit."

The federal government drafted the legislation after courts in two provinces ruled it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. It provides a new definition of marriage, replacing the common-law notion of a union between a man and a woman.

"Marriage, for civil purposes, is the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others," the new definition says.

The legislation affirms religious freedom by recognizing the right of all religions to marry or refuse to marry same-sex couples according to the principles of their faith.

The federal government referred the draft to the Supreme Court last week to ensure the proposed legislation is constitutional. A free vote will then be held in Parliament.

Some of the country's most powerful church leaders are pressuring Canadian MPs to put their religious beliefs ahead of their public duties to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

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The Catholic archbishop of Ottawa, Marcel Gervais, along with religious leaders from Ottawa's Muslim and Hindu communities, wrote a letter to Mr. Chrétien earlier this month urging him not to let "political expediency redefine marriage."

Bishop Henry called the proposed legislation "a misguided sense of tolerance and equality."

Bishop Henry has also clashed with former Tory leader and Calgary MP Joe Clark over the issue. Mr. Clark, who is Catholic, said he will support legalizing same-sex marriage if the Supreme Court finds the bill does not infringe on religious freedoms.

Mr. Clark said MPs represent "the broad public interest, not the interest of a particular faith."

The Vatican states that all Catholics must oppose same-sex unions, citing scripture condemning homosexual acts as "serious depravity."

"There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family," the new document states.

New Democrat MP Svend Robinson, who is gay, called the Vatican's edict and Bishop Henry's comments "outrageous and deeply offensive."

"It's very sad the Vatican feels it has to threaten Catholic MPs with hellfire and eternal damnation," he said.

Mr. Chrétien announced last month that Ottawa would not appeal British Columbia and Ontario court decisions that ruled the opposite-sex requirement for the legal definition of marriage is unconstitutional. Same-sex marriages are now legal in both provinces.

Belgium and the Netherlands are currently the only countries that extend full marriage rights to same-sex couples." With reports from Jonathan Fowlie in Toronto and Paul Koring in Washington

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