MADRID — Spain, which has become a world leader in gay rights in recent years, is to get its first gay Christian church to celebrate marriages between same-sex couples, a news report said Sunday.

The US-based Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) is to open a congregation in Madrid in October, the daily El Mundo said.

On its website, MCC said it was founded California in 1968 as "the world's first church group with a primary, positive ministry to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons."

It now claims 43,000 members in 300 congregations in 22 countries.

El Mundo said a lesbian couple, both Spaniards living in Canada, have come to Madrid to register an MCC congregation with the justice ministry which they expect to open in October.

"We are the first (gay) church in Spain," one of the pair, Raquel Benitez, told the paper.

"There are Christian groups that want to establish some type of (gay) religious organization but they have neither the importance nor the international support that MCC has.

"We want to fill a gap that exists, a spiritual gap for homosexuals, for transsexuals and for any person that does not have a feel for other religions."

Homosexuality was only legalized in Roman Catholic Spain in 1979, shortly after the death of dictator Francisco Franco whose regime shipped off gays to institutions that some activists have likened to concentration camps.

The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has sought to promote gays rights as part of a liberal social agenda.

In 2005 it passed a law to allow same-sex marriages, making Spain only the third member of the European Union, after Belgium and the Netherlands, to do so.

Since then, thousands of gay marriages have been performed in the country.

But the measure has drawn the ire of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and a section of the conservative opposition Popular Party.