ATHENS, Greece, June 6 (AP)--In a major challenge to the government,the leader of Greece's powerful Orthodox Church urged supporters Tuesdayto take to the streets to fight plans to stop recording religion onstate identity cards.

``We turn to the people and call on them to demonstrate against effortsto make Greece a non-religious country,'' Archbishop Christodoulos said.``The faithful public oppose this attempt to push religion into themargins.''

Christodoulos said protest rallies will be held in Athens and thenorthern port of Thessaloniki later this month.

The decision, announced after a nine-hour meeting of the churchhierarchy, was the latest salvo in an important showdown between theSocialist government and clergymen and their supports.

Premier Costas Simitis says religion will be deleted from ID cards toconform with privacy protection laws. Earlier Tuesday, Simitis turnedChristodoulos' offer for talks to seek a compromise.

Government spokesman Dimitis Reppas said he was ``shocked andsurprised'' by the church's decision, but insisted there would be nochange in policy.

More than 90 percent of Greeks and baptized into the Orthodox Church,which represents Greece's official religion and wields considerableinfluence in public life.

Church supporters say keeping religion on ID cards is an importantsymbolic gesture that recognizes the role of the Orthodox church inpreserving Greek identity during years of foreign domination andoccupation.

But the government and leaders of non-Orthodox faiths in Greece say themeasure is outdated and breeds prejudice.

The church-sponsored rallies are planned for Thessaloniki on June 14 andin Athens on June 21.