ATHENS, Greece - Greece's powerful Orthodox Church urged the government in the crisis-hit country on Monday to relax tough hiring restrictions so it can put more priests on the state payroll.

The government last year paid the salaries of 10,800 priests and church staff — who are technically civil servants — out of 757,500 "permanent employees" in the public sector.

In 2011, Greece will only hire one new state employee for every five leaving, as part of its euro110-billion (US$146-billion) international bailout loan agreement. And most of those positions will be taken up through mandatory transfers to reduce staff at loss-making state enterprises.

The church's governing Holy Synod said Monday that it would request a "limited number" of new priests to cover pressing "operating and pastoral needs."

Church leader, Archbishop Ieronymos, urged Greek bishops to make charity programs a priority in 2011 to meet the needs from a surge in poverty caused by the crisis

"Every day we witness the tragic circumstances of growing poverty, and the dangers of unemployment and insecurity," he said.

"We are called as a church to rise to the occasion, despite the negative atmosphere."

Greece's financial crisis has already cost the country some 200,000 jobs, with further reforms expected to push unemployment higher than current levels of 13.5 per cent — and spur a new round of labour protests.

The country's civil servants union, ADEDY, has called a 24-hour strike for Feb. 10, while pharmacy owners are due to begin strikes Wednesday against regulations to liberalize their tightly-regulated business.