At Gay Pride parades Saturday throughout Europe gay men and lesbians marched for the right to have their unions recognized by the government.

While gay marriage was first legalized in Europe and many countries offer civil unions or similar recognitions for gay couples, in countries where anti-gay sentiment runs high, the pace of acceptance continues to lag.

In Rome, an estimated 200,000 demonstrators took to the streets calling for reforms. Gay activists attacked the conservative government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Vatican, and demanded equal rights.

Holding signs that read “No Vatican,” the marchers protested the church's political influence. Pope Benedict has rejected the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, and the Vatican refuses to sign on to a United Nation's resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of being gay, saying such a resolution would promote gay marriage.

Gay rights activist Rossana Traitano told the AFP that Italy had more in common with “Russia than France” in its gay acceptance. Russian authorities closed down a small Gay Pride demonstration in Moscow last month, saying they cannot condone the promotion of being gay.

In another heavily Roman Catholic country, Poland, about 1,500 people wound their way along Warsaw's main Marszalkowska street. Previous Gay Pride marches have been marred by violence and closure by the government, but attacks on Saturday's march were held down to an anti-gay protest as police escorted the marchers.

Anti-gay sentiment was most visible in Croatia where police were needed to restrain a vociferous anti-gay counterdemonstration from attacking the 50 people participating in a small Gay Pride parade. One man was led away by police after he attempted to approach the gay activists.

“Despite our presence there is still a lack of freedom, a restrictedness,” Marko Jurcic, a gay activist, told the AP.

“They [gay men and lesbians] are endangering the freedom of normal, heterosexual people who want to raise their families … and live according to God's natural laws,” Josip Miljak, head of the Croatian Pure Party of Rights that organized the anti-gay protest, told the news service.

While Gay Pride went off more smoothly in Poland this year than in previous years, that acceptance will be put to the test next summer when Warsaw plays host to Europe's official Gay Pride EuroPride, an event likely to draw thousands to the city.