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Tunisians Demonstrate for Secular State

TUNIS – Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated Saturday for a secular state following the murder of a Polish priest, verbal attacks on Jews and an attempt by Islamists to set light to a brothel.

"We've called this demonstration to show that Tunisia is a tolerant country which rejects fanaticism and to strengthen secularism in practice and in law," blogger Sofiane Chourabi, 29, said. (AFP) Rallied by a call on social network Facebook, they gathered in the main Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis waving placards reading, "Secularism = Freedom and Tolerance" and "Stop Extremist Acts".

"We've called this demonstration to show that Tunisia is a tolerant country which rejects fanaticism and to strengthen secularism in practice and in law," blogger Sofiane Chourabi, 29, said.

Police stood by as military helicopters circled overhead.

Earlier Saturday the Tunisian authorities and the country's main Islamist movement denounced the murder of the priest who was found dead in the country with his throat slit.

Marek Rybinski, 34, was found dead Friday in the garage of the private religious school in the Manouba region near the capital where he was responsible for the accounting.

"The ministry of religious affairs condemns this criminal act and calls on all men of religion and civil society to act with determination to prevent such acts happening again," the ministry said in a statement carried by news agency TAP.

It emphasised that "Tunisia has always been a place of peaceful coexistence between races and nationalities and of dialogue between civilisations, religions and culture."

The main Islamist movement in Tunisia, Ennahda (Awakening), also "strongly" condemned the murder Saturday, saying it was "a tactic to distract Tunisians from the objectives of Tunisia's revolution."

"We denounce what happened and we condemn all those who are behind it. We call on the Tunisian authorities to discover the real circumstances of this murder and find the people who did it to enlighten public opinion," the president of the movement's founding assembly, Ali El-Aryath, said.

The murder was the first of a foreigner or priest since the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by mass protests on January 14. An interim government has been installed but the situation in the country is still extremely volatile.

The interior ministry blamed "fascist terrorists with extremist attitudes," without making it clear if it was referring to religious radicals or loyalists of the ousted regime.

The murder occurred as hundreds of Islamists rallied in Tunis Friday calling for the closure of brothels in the city. A march on a street housing one of the best-known brothels was thwarted by police.

Ennadha, which was banned and crushed under Ben Ali and is seeking authorisation to resume its activities, called the demonstration a "violation of the principle of liberty which we want to see rooted in our society."

Anti-Jewish slogans were shouted outside the main Tunis synagogue earlier this month.

Meanwhile around 500 Tunisians rallied outside the French embassy Saturday condemning newly-appointed ambassador Boris Boillon for remarks he made on his arrival and calling for his departure.

While calling for a "new page" in relations between France and Tunisia, Boillon, 41, refused to take questions from some journalists at a press conference on Thursday and dismissed others as "stupid".

Extracts from the encounter were broadcast on Tunisian television and sparked a Facebook page calling for Boillon to go.

France, the former colonial power, failed to realise the strength of the opposition to Ben Ali and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie is under pressure to resign over her links to the deposed regime.

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