- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia — The animated film “Persepolis” has been called blasphemous by Islamists and sparked protests leading to confrontations with Tunisian police.

Police used tear gas Friday to disperse a crowd numbering in the thousands. Worshippers poured out of al-Fatah mosque in downtown Tunis and began protesting after the imam preached against “Persepolis,” calling it a “serious attack on the religious beliefs of Muslims.”

Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution contains a scene showing a character representing God. Depictions of God are considered sacrilege in Islam.

The film won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

The preacher in Tunis questioned the timing of the broadcast by a private TV station during such a sensitive period before the country’s national election. Demonstrations have been ratcheting up before Tunisia’s landmark Oct. 23 election for a constitutional body that will determine the future of the North African nation that overthrew its longtime dictator in January.

Police stopped the marchers with tear gas Friday as they headed toward the Nessma TV station.

Station chief Nabil Karoui has since apologized for airing the film earlier last week, calling it a “mistake.”

There have been other protests against the TV station in the cities of Sousse, Monastir, Sidi Bouzid and Beja. Police arrested 50 demonstrators in Tunis on Oct. 9 after they tried to attack the station.

There has been a rise in attacks against perceived symbols of secularism by hard-core Muslims in Tunisia ahead of the elections. Once suppressed by the former regime, hard-line Muslims are increasingly making themselves heard in the country’s politics.

Since the government was overthrown in January, Tunisia has been filled with unrest and demonstrations as well as the rise of a new, hard-line group of Muslims that had kept a low profile under the largely secular regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In June, Salafists - as the hard-liners are known - attacked a movie theater that was showing a film they deemed insulting to Islam, and recently there were attacks on a university that refused to enroll a student wearing the Islamic face veil.

The front-runner in the election is expected to be the Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist movement that had been severely repressed under the previous regime.