Conservative-dominated government argues that deregulation of trading hours will help combat recession and cut unemployment
Greeks protest: demonstrations against Sunday opening are planned this week in Athens and Thessaloniki. Photograph: George Kampolis/Demotix/Corbis
It has been called a sin by the church, a human rights violation by unions and "totally nonsensical" by shop owners themselves.
Now, to show they mean business, this unlikely triumvirate has pledged to put thousands of people on to the streets as opposition mounts in Greece to government efforts to further liberalise the market by allowing shops to open on Sundays.
"This is a casus belli for the Orthodox Church of Greece," said Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus. "Any MPs who support this will … have stepped on the law of God."
Under pressure from international creditors propping up the debt-crippled country, prime minister Antonis Samaras's ruling coalition has drafted legislation lifting the ban on Sunday shopping – to date perhaps the clearest sign of one of Europe's most closed economies.
The conservative-dominated administration has argued that deregulation of trading hours will help combat recession and record levels of unemployment – at nearly 27 % the highest in the euro zone.
"It will help boost competition and create 30,000 new jobs," said the development minister, Costis Hatzidakis, unveiling the new law ultimately giving local authorities the ability to decide whether to allow Sunday shopping.
With the exception of big chains, most Greek stores follow a sporadic schedule of working three late shifts a week and a half-day on Saturday. Shops are also permitted to open two Sundays a year in the run-up to Christmas – a timetable that to the bewilderment of many, consumer groups have long supported.
Greece's powerful church has played a major role keeping it that way.
Politicians contemplating extending shop trading hours have been leaned on to abandon their plans in what has become a classic case of resistance to reform.
Small shop owners – until the crisis, the lifeblood of the Greek economy and an important interest group – insist that liberalisation will only favour bigger stores at a time when few can afford to hire extra personnel. More than a third of store staff have not been paid in months, according to the association of private employees, citing the country's sixth straight year of recession and chronic lack of liquidity.
"Keeping shops open 52 Sundays a year makes no sense at all," said Kostas Hanzarides, head of the trade association of Thessaloniki, which has called for mass demonstrations on Tuesday.
In Athens, where protests are also planned, retailers say the law will mean the end of family-run businesses already hard hit by higher utility bills and a barrage of new taxes.
"You want to be done with us," quipped Giorgos Kavvathas who presides over the general association of Greek artisans. "Are 120,000 store closures over the last three years not enough?"
The militant communist-backed union Pame, which is capable of mobilising thousands on to the streets, has denounced the move, saying it will benefit major business groups "who want to increase their profits and the exploitation of workers".