"This is a rare experiment in the Muslim world," proudly stated Muhammad Mahfudh, director of the centre attached to the Islamic affairs ministry that trained this first class of 50 women.

Ministry spokesman Hamid Rono said it was the "first (of its  kind) in the Islamic world".

This pioneer group of Murshidat, or guides, who finished a 12-month course in early April, were trained to "accompany and orient" Muslim faithful, notably in prisons, hospitals and schools, said Mahfudh.

They will earn a salary of 5,000 dirhams ($560) a month.

Samira Marzouk, in her 30s like most of the others, exclaims how "proud" she is to be part of this first group.

She sees their mission as one to "fill in the gaps that prevent a solid framework for religion".

"We are going to teach a tolerant Islam by focussing on the underprivileged classes."

"The Morshidat will be in charge of leading religious  discussions, give lessons in Islam, give moral support to people in difficulty and guide the faithful towards a tolerant Islam"

Samira Marzouk,
a pioneer Murshida, or guide

They will notably work with women and children in poor ghettoes seen as fertile ground for extremist recruiters.

The idea of the Murshidat, spearheaded by King Mohammed VI and the government, took off after Islamic extremist attacks in the Casablanca on May 16, 2003 claimed 45 lives and left dozens of others wounded.

The King who had already started reshaping religious structures to rein in any extremist drift in his North African country, which borders Algeria where violence between government forces and armed Islamic extremists has caused more than 150,000 deaths since 1992.

New urgency

But the synchronised suicide bomb attacks that struck Jewish and foreign targets gave new urgency to the initiative.

More than 2,000 people were arrested in vast police sweeps after the May bombings as the king pledged that the attacks would be the last to rock Morocco.

Investigators concluded that those behind the incident had indeed sought recruits in the teeming slums around Casablanca, the kingdom's biggest city.

Marzuk, with a diploma in Arab literature who said she knew the Quran by heart, was quick to specify she was "not going to take the place of an imam".

"The imamate in Islam is restricted solely to men who are apt at leading prayers, notably those on Friday," she said.

Tolerant Islam

"The Morshidat will be in charge of leading religious discussions, give lessons in Islam, give moral support to people in difficulty and guide the faithful towards a tolerant Islam," she added.

Another graduate, Laila Faris, a lively young woman who holds a degree in Islamic studies, said she saw the Murshidat's role as promoting "the true face of Islam".

"We will help attenuate any drift towards Islamic extremism,"  she said, stressing that "an overall approach is needed to dealing with radical Islam".

During the year-long course, the curriculum ranged from Islamic studies to psychology, sociology, computer skills, economy, law and business management.

"We will help attenuate any drift towards Islamic extremism... an overall approach is needed to dealing with radical Islam"

Laila Faris, another pioneering Murshida

Sports was the only subject dropped from the women preachers' training because the schedule was just too tight," regretted Mahfudh, who hopes to include it for the second batch of Murshidat trainees, whose applications are now being accepted.

For the Islamic affairs minister, Ahmed Taoufiq, the Murshidat  will also "instruct women on their basis religious duties".

He said religious radicalism was not part of Morocco's culture  "but you can never prevent evil one hundred percent".

Divided

Morocco's Islamic fundamentalists are divided over the  initiative.

For one, Islamist deputy Mustafa Ramid with the Islamist  Justice and Development party (PJD), the main opposition group with 43 seats in the 325-member parliament, the Murshidat is a "positive"  development.

"I see nothing more to say about this initiative because in  Islam, men and women are equal," he said, pointing to Egypt which  has "eminent women scholars of Islam".

But the head of the youth group in Morocco's most radical  Islamic fundamentalist association, Al-Adl Wal-Ihssane (Justice and  Welfare), forecast it would have no effect on the ground.

 "The power behind this initiative is the same as the one that commits acts contrary to Islam, notably degrading moral values,"  said Hasan Bennajih, whose group is part of an Islamist movement that preaches non-violence and is unrecognized by authorities, but still influential.

"This initiative, then, will only have a limited impact on the  population," said Hasan Bennajih.