• Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg May 1, 2013, during their rally against a controversial law in the city that activists see as violating the rights of gays. (Getty)
Russia's powerful Orthodox Church has proposed a referendum on banning gay relationships, despite Western pressure over human rights ahead of next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi.
UPDATED 9:59 AM - 11 Jan 2014

The proposal came in response to a growing Russian debate over whether the Kremlin should mount a stronger defence of traditional values in the overwhelmingly conservative country in the face of pressure from Europe and the United States.
   
Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin pointed to polls showing more than a third of Russians view homosexuality as an illness as a sign that the country was ready to revert to a Soviet-era homosexual ban.
   
"There is no question that society should discuss this issue since we live in a democracy," Chaplin told the online edition of the pro-government Izvestia daily.
   
"For this reason, it is precisely the majority of our people and not some outside powers that should decide what should be a criminal offence and what should not," he said.
   
High-profile celebrities and sports stars have already urged athletes attending the February 7-23 Olympic Games on the Black Sea coast to show their support for Russia's lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community by flashing protest signs at the event.
   
The call came after President Vladimir Putin last year signed controversial new legislation that made it a crime to promote same-sexual relationship in front of minors.
   
Chaplin -- known for his outspoken views but also an influential member of Russian religious community who airs weekly shows on state TV -- claimed that most countries viewed homosexual relationships as a crime.
   
"I am convinced that such sexual contacts should be completely excluded from the life of our society," said the Church spokesman.
   
"If we manage to do this through moral pressure, all the better. But if we need to revert to assistance from the law, then let us ask the people if they are ready for this."
   
The Soviet Union criminalised homosexual relationships in 1934 at the height of Joseph Stalin's repressions that saw millions die in labour camps.
   
Post-Soviet Russia repealed the ban in 1993, but gay rights remained under strong pressure.