TUNIS - Seeking to counter extremist ideologies, Tunisia has reopened an ancient Islamic college to preach the moderate teachings of Islam.
"The aim is to restore Zaitouna's educational and religious role in Tunisia and North Africa in order to spread the principles of moderate religion," Fathi al-Khamiri, who heads a pressure group that obtained a court order allowing the school to reopen, told Reuters.
The Zaitona University was closed in 1964 by secularist strongman Habib Bourguiba as part of his efforts to curb the influence of religion in Tunisia.
The college was mater merged with the state's Tunis University.
Zaitouna once rivaled Egypt's Al Azhar as a centre of Islamic learning.
During the golden age of Islam, generations of leading Muslim thinkers studied logic, philosophy, medicine and grammar as well as theology within its walls.
That rich tradition had already begun to atrophy by the time Bourguiba became president in the 1950s.
In recent decades, radical religious ideas have spread across the Middle East, partly in response to a perceived attack on Islam by the West.
Khamiri said the staff of the college were currently being assembled and the final curriculum would be announced in the coming weeks.
It would ultimately answer to the Ministry of Higher Education, like secular academic institutions.
"The return of this religious educational beacon is very important in light of the increased religious extremism that we are living with," said Khamiri.
Last year's revolution ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba's successor, who locked up thousands of Islamists during his 23-year rule.
Since then, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has won elections and now leads the government.
But tension often pops up between Islamists and secularists, raising fears that zealots will try to impose their views by force in a country that is among the most tolerant in the Arab world.
Dozens of young men and women showed up at the opening to claim a place in the prestigious college.
"I've brought my daughter to register to protect her against the prevailing benighted ideas," said one woman, as her daughter filled in an application form.
"So she knows that Islam protects women's' rights and does not take away her freedoms, as some of these extremists are trying to convince us.
"This ... will spread openness, moderation and tolerance among young people and is the key to distancing them from extremists who may lead them to jihadist groups that bear arms," said the woman.
At a small table, applications for courses in religion that will include theology, morals and the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) were piled high.
Classes for 18- to 20-year-olds begin next month.
"Zaitouna's open ideas are as far as you can get from Wahhabi and Salafi ideas," Shamseddine Eshi, 26, said."Here at Zaitouna, the moderation of the scholars and their high morals are the best protection against extremism."