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Pak dithers on madrassas' registration deadline

Musharraf warned that madrassas would be closed unless they registered with authorities by the year-end.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2005 11:27 IST

Islamic schools said on Friday they would resist any effort by police to round up their foreign students, even as the Government backed away from a threat to do so if the students don't leave Pakistan by December 31.

The estimated 13,500 schools, known as madrassas, have long been regarded as a recruiting ground for Islamic militants. Three of the four suicide bombers who killed more than 50 people on London's transport system in July were of Pakistani origin, and at least one visited a madrassa with known militant links.

After the bombings, President Gen Pervez Musharraf vowed to deport foreign madrassa students. His government also warned that madrassas would be closed unless they registered with authorities by the year-end.

Last week, the Interior Ministry cranked up the pressure, issuing an order that madrassas should expel foreign students by December 31. But late Thursday, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao appeared to back down from that order and ruled out immediate expulsion of students.

"There is no deadline for it," he told the private Geo TV network.

Hanif Jalandhri, the head of the main association representing the religious schools, the Federation of Madrassas, said on Friday that about 1,000 foreign students had left since July but more time was needed for the 700 others to leave.

He urged the Government not to resort to police action. "If they did it, it would be a highly unwise step on their part," he said, adding that madrassa organisers would meet in Islamabad on Sunday "to resist any such forced expulsions."

"Foreign students are not criminals. They are just getting Islamic education," he said.

In eastern Punjab province, the local government ordered on December 22 that police ensure 91 foreign students from countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Tanzania and Bangladesh were expelled from madrassas by Saturday, but as of Friday, none had been rounded up. Lahore city police chief Tariq Saleem said the police would act as the Government instructs after December 31.

The Government's apparent indecision casts doubt over its determination to rein in madrassas, which largely operate outside state control, providing free schooling and board to at least 1.1 million students, many from poor families.

In July, Musharraf vowed to modernise madrassas and shut those that spawn "sectarian hatred and militancy", renewing a similar promise that led to little concrete action after the September 11, 2001, attacks in America, when Pakistan abandoned its support of the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, which had recruited thousands of fighters from Pakistani madrassas.

On August 29, Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq said madrassas had until December 31 to register with the Government or face closure. Jalandhri said on Friday that so far only 75 per cent to 80 per cent had done so.

Critics argue that the registration process is weak anyway and won't lead to effective regulation, as it doesn't require madrassas to submit complete lists of their teachers and students, or reveal their funding sources.

First Published: Dec 31, 2005 11:27 IST