A church nativity scene which features two mothers of the Baby Jesus, instead of the conventional Mary and Joseph figurines, has sparked anger among conservative Catholics and politicians in Italy.

Nativity scenes are popular in the largely Catholic country, but in recent years they have been increasingly mired in culture wars as its society becomes more secular and multi-cultural.

The priest at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, in Capocastello di Mercogliano, a hamlet in the province of Avellino about one hour’s drive east of Naples, has defended its depiction of the birth of Jesus.

“I wanted to show with this scene that families are no longer just the traditional ones,” Father Vitaliano Della Sala told Reuters.

“In our parishes we see more and more children from the new types of families that exist and are part of our society, children of separated and divorced people, gay couples, single people, young mothers.”

Father Della Sala, known in Italy for sympathising with LGBT and left-wing causes, says his attitude is in line with that of Pope Francis, who this week, in a landmark ruling, allowed priests to bless same-sex couples.

But Senator Maurizio Gasparri, of the co-ruling Forza Italia party, said the LGBT creche “offends all those who always had respect and devotion for the Holy Family”.

The Pro-Vita & Famiglia (Pro-Life and Family) group called it “dangerous, as well as shameful and blasphemous”.

Pro-Vita, which launched an online petition calling on the bishop of Avellino to intervene, said the nativity scene contradicted the Church’s teachings on the family and legitimised same-sex parenting and surrogacy.

The petition has so far attracted more than 21,000 signatories.

Having children through surrogacy is illegal in Italy, and parliament is discussing a government-sponsored law that would also criminalise couples who resort to the practice by going abroad.

This week, a senator from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party proposed another bill that would prevent school directors from halting Catholic-themed activities such as Christmas plays or the making of nativity scenes.