TUNIS: Tunisia's governing Islamist party said it will not support making sharia, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation in a new constitution and will maintain the secular nature of the state.
Ennahda's stance on an issue that has increasingly polarised the country since its January 2011 revolution was criticised by hardline Islamists who wanted full-blown sharia, but welcomed by secular parties.
Ennahda, which emerged as the biggest party in Tunisia's first democratic elections last year, said Monday it would keep the first article of the 1956 constitution in the new basic law now being drafted.
The article enshrines the separation of religion and state, stating that: "Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and it is a republic."
"We are not going to use the law to impose religion," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told journalists after the moderate Islamist party's constituent committee voted to maintain the constitutional article by 52 votes to 12.
The article, he added, "is the object of consensus among all sectors of society; preserving Tunisia's Arab-Muslim identity while also guaranteeing the principles of a democratic and secular state."
Islam is Tunisia's official religion and while the constitution stipulates the president should be a Muslim, the state is mostly secular.
Some had voiced concern that Ennahda would seek to curb women's rights and other liberties in an Arab country known for its progressive laws.
But Ghannouchi said the Islamist party would not "introduce ambiguous definitions into the constitution that risk dividing the people", adding that "many Tunisians do not have a clear image of sharia and erroneous practices in certain countries have aroused fear."
The statement has angered Tunisia's ultra-conservative Salafists, who have been pushing for sharia to be recognised as the main source of law.
At least 8,000 hardline Islamists staged a demonstration in central Tunis on Sunday to press their demands, and Ennahda's stance came as a disappointment.
"This is a betrayal of all those who voted for this party ... and the principles of the Islamist movement," Hechmi Haamdi of the hardline Islamist Al-Arydha movement told AFP.
Progressive Democratic Party member Meher Hanin, however, said the announcement had "lifted the ambiguity" on sharia's place in the law.
"This will allow us to advance in the writing of the constitution," said Hanin, whose party is in parliamentary opposition.
"Ennahda has made clear declarations; the secular character of the state is maintained. Now it must honour those commitments," he added.
Political analyst Slah Jourchi explained the move by saying Ennahda "did not want to divide Tunisians in this very delicate period".
Mohamed Bennour, spokesman of Ennahda's governing coalition partner Ettakatol, agreed that the Islamist party's decision bolstered national unity.
"We hope they will suit actions to words," he said.
Welcoming Ennahda's stance, Abdeljawed Jouneidi of the centre-left Ettajdid opposition party stressed the need for the ideal to be given practical effect.
"Ghannouchi wanted to appease public opinion and call the extremists to order, but we need actions" and an end to intolerance on the ground, he said.
Jouneidi cited anti-Semitic slogans chanted at Sunday's pro-sharia protest, urging the government to "punish such hate speech".
In his statement Monday, Ghannouchi sought to give assurances that Ennahda would defend "all minorities".
Ghannouchi, an Ennahda founding member, had in the 1970s called for strict application of sharia in Tunisia to restore order in a society he said had become depraved.
But he has toned down his discourse in recent years.
A Muslim majority of more than 90 percent has lived peacefully for years with religious minorities in Tunisia, including Jews.