Lagos, Nigeria, Nov. 21--(AP) - More than 50 people were stabbed, bludgeoned or burned to death during violent demonstrations Thursday in the northern city of Kaduna triggered by a newspaper article suggesting Islam's founding prophet might have chosen a wife from among contestants in the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria.

At least 200 others were seriously injured and four churches were torched, Nigerian Red Cross president Emmanuel Ijewere told The Associated Press. Many of the bodies were taken by Red Cross workers and other volunteers to local mortuaries. But many more remained inside homes that were set alight by the demonstrators, Ijewere said. "A lot of people died. We don't know yet exactly how many ... more than 50," he said.

Shehu Sani of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress said he watched a crowd stab one young man, then force a tire filled with gasoline around his neck and burn him alive. Sani said he saw three other bodies elsewhere in the city. Alsa Hassan, founder of another human rights group, Alsa Care, said he saw a commuter being dragged out of his car and beaten to death by protesters.

Schools and shops hurriedly closed Thursday morning as hordes of young men, shouting "Allahu Akhbar," or "God is great," ignited makeshift street barricades made of tires and garbage, sending plumes of black smoke rising above the city. Others were heard chanting, "Down with beauty" and "Miss World is sin."

Hundreds of police and soldiers were deployed to restore calm. Riding in pickup trucks, they fired tear gas at protesters marching through otherwise abandoned streets waving tree branches and palm fronds. State government officials declared a curfew of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

A businessman, Lateef Mohammed, said he saw young men smashing the windows of two small churches in Badarawa, a predominantly Muslim area. Two other witnesses interviewed separately gave similar accounts. "I just rushed to get to my home. It was very tense," Mohammed said by telephone.

Previous riots in Kaduna, a largely Muslim city with a sizable Christian minority, have escalated into religious battles that killed hundreds since civilian government replaced military rule in 1999.

The latest demonstrations began Wednesday with the burning of an office of ThisDay newspaper in Kaduna after it published an article questioning the reasoning of Muslim groups that have condemned the Miss World pageant, to be held Dec. 7 in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Muslim groups say the pageant promotes sexual promiscuity and indecency. "What would (the prophet) Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among them (the contestants)," Isioma Daniel wrote in Saturday's article.

The Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, the country's highest Muslim body, has urged President Olusegun Obasanjo to cancel the pageant and sanction the newspaper. Other Muslim groups have called for boycotts and other unspecified actions against the publication.

An influential fundamentalist Muslim cleric in the northern city of Kano, Karibullah Nasiru Kabara, warned Thursday that he and other leaders would only "appeal to the people not to take the law into their own hands" if the government punishes the newspaper's editors and calls off the pageant. "When we say 'stop it,' the people stop it. When we say 'do this,' the people do the same," Kabara said.

On Monday, ThisDay ran a brief front-page apology for sections considered offensive to Muslims, which it said had been mistakenly published after being removed by the supervising editor. The newspaper ran a second, more lengthy retraction and apology Thursday.

Islamic fundamentalist groups have for several months warned of protests against the Miss World pageant, prompting organizers to postpone the finale until after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Participants from at least five countries are boycotting the pageant because Islamic courts in Nigeria have sentenced several unmarried women to death by stoning for conceiving babies outside wedlock. Nigeria's government insists none of the judgments will be carried out, although it has refused to intervene directly.

Miss World publicist Stella Din said pageant organizers hoped calm would quickly return to Kaduna. "We are very, very sad that it has come to this - even if there is a loss of one life, it makes us sad. We are appealing to all to please exercise restraint," Din said.

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