Updated 3:00 p.m. EST
ZAGREB, Croatia — A majority of Croatians voted in a referendum Sunday to ban gay marriages in what is a major victory for the Catholic Church-backed conservatives in the European Union’s newest nation.
The state electoral commission, citing initial results, said 65 percent of those who voted answered “yes” to the referendum question: “Do you agree that marriage is matrimony between a man and a woman?” About 34 percent voted against.
The result meant that Croatia’s constitution will be amended to ban same-sex marriage.
The vote has deeply divided Croatia. Liberal groups have said the referendum’s question infringes on basic human rights. The Church-backed groups have gathered 750,000 signatures in its support.
The country of 4.4 million, which became EU’s 28th member in July, has taken steps to improve gay rights, but issues such as same-sex marriage remain highly sensitive in the staunchly Catholic nation.
The referendum wa s called by the “In the Name of the Family” conservative group after Croatia’s center-left government drafted a law to let gay couples register as “life partners.”
The Catholic Church leaders have urged their followers to vote “yes” in the referendum. Nearly 90 percent of Croatians are Roman Catholics.
“Marriage is the only union enabling procreation,” Croatian Cardinal Josip Bozanic said in his message to the followers. “This is the key difference between a marriage and other unions.”
Several hundred gay rights supporters marched in the capital, Zagreb, on Saturday urging a “no” vote.
Croatia’s liberal President Ivo Josipovic said he will vote against amending the constitution.
“We don’t need this kind of a referendum,” Josipovic said. “Defining marriage between a man and a woman doesn’t belong to the constitution. A nation is judged by its attitude toward minorities.”
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said that “this is the last referendum that gives a chance to the majority to strip a minority of its rights.”
The EU hasn’t officially commented on the referendum, but has clashed with Croatia over some of its other laws, including an extradition law that has prevented its citizens from being handed over to the bloc’s other member states, which Croatia had to amend under pressure from Brussels.