Athens, May 12, 2000 (dpa) - The Greek Orthodox church on the Mediterraneanisland of Cyprus has called for a boycott of the Miss Universe pageantSaturday, denouncing such contests as un-Christian and an embarrassment towomen. On Friday, Cypriot newspapers described the dispute which has brokenout between the Cypriot church and pageant organizers as a "holy war". Church leaders will organize an all-night vigil on Friday near thepageant's venue, an indoor sports arena in Nicosia, to coincide with thefinal preparations for the televised show. "We will pray together for the souls of the people. Such contestshumiliate women and are more characteristic of a slave bazaar," said CypriotOrthodox Church spokesman, Nicos Nicolaides. Local women's rights groups have also denounced the pageant, and havecalled on people to demonstrate outside the venue. "It is a meat market and we will be outside tonight to try to stopthis miserable organization," said a woman from the women's rights groupLabour Democracy. However, contestants argue that the pageant reward both intelligenceand beauty. Both Miss Australia and Miss Lebanon are lawyers and MissYugoslavia has majored in architect at college. Even though beauty pageants have been staged in Cyprus in the past,the church has been more vocal this time around because the government issponsoring the event, which has been linked to the pagan worship ofAphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

According to mythology, Aphrodite was born from sea foam and washed upon the beach of the western port town of Pathos, Cyprus some 3,000 yearsago. The Greek goddess of love is supposed to have been judged the winner inthe first Miss Universe contest.

Seventy-nine contestants will be judged in evening dress, swimsuitsand national costume during the pageant, which will be televised around theworld.

Aside from the dispute raging between the church and organizers,Cypriot press reports say that the contestants themselves have also beencaught up in a "political dispute".

Miss Turkey will not participate in the pageant after she tried toenter the Republic of Cyprus from the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state in thenorth and was turned away. The entity is only recognized by Turkey.

In addition, Miss Lebanon is not on speaking terms with Miss Israelbecause of the recent air and artillery strikes against her country. MissTaiwan meanwhile has had to change her name to Miss Chinese Taiwan.