TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian court has sentenced six radical Islamists to five years in prison for burning a Sufi Muslim shrine in one of a spate of attacks that have highlighted rising militancy in the country that ignited the Arab Spring.
Last October, Salafist Muslims descended upon Saida Manouba, a famous Sufi shrine in Tunis, setting it alight and attacking visitors. Salafists, whose ultraconservative ideology is followed by al Qaeda, consider Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, as heretical.
Two of the six defendants sentenced by the court on Monday were tried in absentia as they are on the run, local media reported.
Tunisia was the first country to be rocked by an Arab Spring uprising in 2011, ending the authoritarian rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspiring similar revolutions in Egypt and Libya.
Since then, the struggle over the role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics, regularly erupting into violent clashes.
Sufi Muslim leaders in Tunisia have said around 40 sites were ransacked by Salafists in recent months, prompting the government to promise emergency measures to protect mausoleums and shrines.
But secularists say the Ennahda party, the Tunisian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood which governs in coalition with secular parties, has been too lenient on the Salafists, giving them the confidence to step up their demands.
Last September, Salafists attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunis to protest against an anti-Islamic film released on the Internet. They have also targeted alcohol vendors and cinemas.
The rise of Islamist militancy poses a test to the authority of the moderate Islamist-led government and to the stability of Tunisia, a country of 11 million and long the most secular Arab nation.
The attempts by Salafists to gain a broader role for religion have alarmed Tunisia's secular elite, which fears this could undermine individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara, editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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