August 27, 2001 ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Carrying signatures from more than 3 million supporters, Greek Orthodox Church leaders warned the government Monday to brace for another storm over the removal of a religion entry on state identity cards.

The government abolished the religion entry on state-issued mandatory ID cards in May 2000, saying the changes are needed to conform with European Union standards on privacy protection and civil rights. Greece's religious minorities, including Jews, Muslims and Roman Catholics, welcomed the decision as a way to curb alleged religious discrimination.

The church strongly objected and accused the government of trying to undermine the role of religion in Greece, where more than 97 percent of the native-born population of 11 million people is baptized as Orthodox Christians.

After mass rallies of more than 500,000 people failed to convince the government, the church turned to a yearlong petition drive, collecting signatures from nearly a third of the nation's population.

The Socialist government has always insisted it will never bend to pressure from the church. But now, the Greek leadership is fragmented. The government, weakened by a stumbling economy and political bickering, is forced to again confront the powerful clerics.

``The state, which created the problem ... should honor the signatures of the Greek citizens,'' said Holy Synod spokesman Metropolitan Efstathios of Sparta following a meeting of the church's leadership.

The head of the church, Archbishop Christodoulos, plans Tuesday to announce the precise number of signatures on its petition drive. The following day, he is scheduled to appeal directly to President Costis Stephanopoulos, who holds only ceremonial power but is deeply respected.

''(The priests) are going after the constitution and the democratically operating state,'' government spokesman Dimitris Reppas said. During a weekend sermon, Christodoulos claimed clerics were ``superior to kings and prime ministers and presidents.'' He had earlier questioned Premier Costas Simitis' ability to govern.

The Greek president cannot directly change the government's decisions. He could, however, resign and force early elections - an outcome some senior clerics would like to see. But it's considered highly unlikely.

Conservative politicians have sided with the church. Opposition leader Costas Caramanlis proposed making a religion entry optional on the ID cards. Leftist parties, however, have joined in accusing Christodoulos of seeking political power.

``It is not the role of the church to declare that it has authority over the democratic framework of the country,'' said Left Coalition leader Nikos Constantopoulos, who accused Christodoulos of preaching ``theocracy that takes us back centuries.''

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