Malaysia to probe religious schools in latest crackdown

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia is considering changing rules governing religious schools, known as madrassas, to stop the possibility of them being used to incite unrest, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday.

Malaysia is in the middle of a crackdown against suspected Muslim militants and has arrested around 45 men, several of whom are religious teachers and many of whom belong to the fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).

"If we discover they are teaching something else other than religion, if they are teaching the people how to break the law, as happens in Pakistan, we will have to reconsider whether we will allow them to do so or not," Mahathir said.

The prime minister, when asked whether PAS would be allowed to continue to run madrassas, said the government was considering amending existing laws or introducing new regulations covering religious schools.

PAS wants to introduce an Islamic state in multicultural Malaysia, where around one-third of the 23 million people are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indians.

In Malaysia, Islamic matters come under the purview of the sultans, the hereditary rulers in nine of Malaysia's 14 states, and schools obtain their licences from the states.

Mahathir drew parallels with the current crackdown on madrassas in Pakistan, which spawned fighters who joined the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

"President (Perves) Musharraf is now shutting down many of the madrassas after finding they are not teaching religion but how to revolt and overthrow the government," Mahathir said.

Many ethnic Malay families send their sons to religious schools out of duty to Islam, and some pay for a religious education abroad in the well known madrassas of Egypt and Pakistan.

Malaysia had no clear idea how many of its nationals were attending madrassas in Pakistan, where the authorities now fear Muslim militant groups recruited young men to their ranks.

Mahathir said he was unsure if his police planned any more arrests after the seven announced at the weekend.

"Maybe they have not finished yet," he said.