``A deep social rift is beginning,'' declared the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, in the second mass rally to resist plans to remove religious affiliation from state IDs. On June 14, up to 120,000 people gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
But Premier Costas Simitis has insisted there will be no steps to repeal the measure, which is part of 1997 privacy protection reforms.
Christodoulos and his supporters also refuse to back down, setting up a momentous struggle between Greece's two most powerful institutions: the Orthodox church and the long-governing Socialists.
``Victory is assured,'' boomed Christodoulos.
The rally took on the character of a political event--reinforcing accusations from critics that Christodoulos is meddling in state affairs.
``Christodoulos lead us and we will follow,'' chanted some of the protesters. Others distributed fliers declaring: ``We are at war.''
Christodoulos repeatedly stated he has no political ambitions, but called the church ``a great popular force'' that will ``not be a slave'' to any government.
He also hinted that it's sometimes justified to disobey laws.
``When a citizen wants to write his religion on his ID, no one can forbid this,'' he said.
Some Greek media cited sources saying Christodoulos is considering mounting a petition drive to force early elections. The church has not commented on the reports.
On the broadest level, the battle has become an allegory for the nation.
Simitis' government has worked hard to push Greece into the mainstream of the European Union. An important milestone was reached Tuesday: confirmation that Greece will become the newest member of the EU's single currency group.
Many church leaders are deeply suspicious of the modernization drive. They see it as a threat to the Christian Orthodox character of the nation and possibly the stirrings of an eventual separation of church and state in Greece.
``Theocracy or Democracy?'' asked a banner headline in the left-leaning Eleftherotypia newspaper.
In the huge square at the foot of the parliament building, Christodoulos was joined by dozens of senior clerics atop a 20-meter (66-foot) high platform.
Peddlers sold crosses and flags of Greece and the two-headed eagle symbol of the former Byzantine Empire. Bewildered tourists struggled through the crowds to reach their hotels.
A rally organizer, Metropolitan Daniel, said more than 1,500 buses were chartered for protesters. Tens of thousands of others traveled from islands on boats.
``This is the supreme demonstration of protest against the removal of religion from identity cards and the transformation of Greece into an atheist state,'' the church said in a memorandum sent to parish priests.
Organizers also used established political rally techniques to try to maximize the impact. The memorandum, reprinted in a newspaper, asked protesters to spread out to widen the area of the crowd, but make sure they were tightly packed near television cameras and photographers. The advise was clearly followed.
``We will not accept the new IDs,'' declared a protester, Dimitra Kapanou. ``We would rather die.''
About 97 percent of Greece's native-born population of 10.5 million is baptized into the Orthodox Church, which sees itself as the true guardian of Greek identity and traditions. The church strongly promotes the belief that it safeguarded the Greek language and customs during four centuries of Ottoman rule.
But religious minorities such as the Muslims and Jews say the current ID cards make them targets for discrimination.