Negotiations among EU states on a new proposal about an anti-discrimination directive have been slowed down in recent weeks following objections by pro-Catholic members, including Malta.

Malta, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic are taking a pro-Church stance during the negotiations and have presented amendments to water down substantially the text of the directive particularly where religious discrimination is involved, EU sources told The Sunday Times.

The new proposal, which has angered the Church, intends to widen the scope of the current Equal Treatment Directive which until now only caters for anti-discrimination provisions related to employment.

The European Commission is now suggesting that discrimination will also become illegal in relation to sexual orientation, age, religious belief and disability as well as the provision of goods and services.

The British bishops, who recently came out publicly against the directive, gave some examples of what could happen if the text of the proposal is not amended.

"The organisers of a Catholic conference, for instance, would be legally obliged to make double rooms available to gay and unmarried couples as well as to married heterosexuals... or from insisting that people at church events behave in a way consistent with Christian teaching," the bishops said.

The Church described the directive as a possible new "instrument of oppression" against religion. Its authorities in various member states, including Malta's Curia, are therefore putting pressure on their governments to defend the faithful.

The government would only say negotiations are still ongoing at working-party level. However, a government spokesman admitted there were certain aspects of the proposal which could affect Maltese society and which needed to be changed.

"Malta's concerns relate to the practical interpretation and implementation of this proposal particularly as this has far-reaching implications which cut across Maltese society. Malta believes national competencies need to be clearly demarcated."

At the same time, the government insisted it fully respects the principles underlying the proposed directive and endorses its broad objectives.

"It is pertinent to note that the government has over the years instituted several measures in order to overcome discrimination in the areas of gender, race and disability," the spokesman said.

Although Sweden, which holds the EU Presidency and is one of the most liberal European countries, was hoping to reach a conclusion on this directive by the end of this year, the objections made by the Church and reflected in the position of the pro-Church member states will effectively mean the negotiations will take much longer and the directive will be virtually re-written.

This directive needs the unanimous support of member states before approval.

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