Athens, May 12, 2000 (dpa) - The Greek Orthodox church on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has called for a boycott of the Miss Universe pageant Saturday, denouncing such contests as un-Christian and an embarrassment to women. On Friday, Cypriot newspapers described the dispute which has broken out between the Cypriot church and pageant organizers as a "holy war". Church leaders will organize an all-night vigil on Friday near the pageant's venue, an indoor sports arena in Nicosia, to coincide with the final preparations for the televised show. "We will pray together for the souls of the people. Such contests humiliate women and are more characteristic of a slave bazaar," said Cypriot Orthodox Church spokesman, Nicos Nicolaides. Local women's rights groups have also denounced the pageant, and have called on people to demonstrate outside the venue. "It is a meat market and we will be outside tonight to try to stop this miserable organization," said a woman from the women's rights group Labour Democracy. However, contestants argue that the pageant reward both intelligence and beauty. Both Miss Australia and Miss Lebanon are lawyers and Miss Yugoslavia 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 is sponsoring the event, which has been linked to the pagan worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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