LONDON – The organizers of the Miss World beauty pageant said Monday they were not to blame for the Muslim-Christian bloodletting in Nigeria touched off by a debate over the morality of the contest.
More than 200 people have died in riots that erupted last week, forcing the relocation of the contest from Abuja, the Nigerian capital, to London.
Miss World President Julia Morley said the contest had been used as a "political football" and blamed the violence on a Nigerian newspaper article suggesting Islam's founding prophet would have approved of the pageant.
Though Nigeria has a long history of Muslim-Christian hostility, she said it was not a mistake to choose the country as a site for the contest.
"What was a mistake was a journalist making a remark he shouldn't have made," Morley told a news conference at a hotel near Heathrow Airport after her return from the west African nation.
The article deeply offended Muslims who had objected to the contest as promoting promiscuity. Though the newspaper, ThisDay, published an apology, riots broke out, first in the northern city of Kaduna, then in Abuja.
Asked if the organizers bore any responsibility for the violence, she replied: "I think everyone does if they are holding something on a worldwide scale. But if you are asking me 'did we do it?' the answer is no, we didn't. It isn't the fault of the girls or any of us."
Some commentators said the pageant could not detach itself from the violence and called for the event to be canceled.
"It is completely despicable that we have agreed to host this travesty," the writer Muriel Gray was quoted as saying by The Guardian newspaper Monday.
"These girls will be wearing swim wear dripping with blood," she added.
But Morley said while it was "unfortunate" people were killed, it would be "absolutely unreasonable" to cancel the Dec. 7 pageant.
More than 80 women are competing to become Miss World. Morley said she was still looking for a London venue but had received several offers.
"I will put up a tent in Hyde Park and do it from there if I have to."
Even before the violence, at least four contestants had decided to boycott the pageant to protest rulings by Islamic courts in Nigeria sentencing women to death by stoning for having sex outside of marriage.
Miss England, Daniella Luan, said she had no regrets about going to Nigeria. "Apart from the final two days, it was such a great experience and I had a wonderful time," she said in an interview Monday with GMTV.
"It is a shame a small minority of people spoiled it for everyone," Miss Wales, Michelle Bush, said on the same program. "There were a lot of people crying as we were leaving because they did not want us to go."
But Miss Canada, Lynsey Bennett, said she decided to leave Nigeria after she found out people were dying.
"I said, `You know what? This is not why I'm here. This isn't right. I'm going home,"' she said on her return to Ottawa late Sunday.