Pakistan moves to contain religious extremism

Pakistan is moving to regulate thousands of religious schools and seminaries in a move aimed at curbing the spread of religious militancy, officials said.

The government is giving final touches to a draft law for the purpose, which will mark another major step to control religious extremism since President Pervez Musharraf banned two militant groups in August, they said.

Musharraf and religious parties have been at loggerheads since Pakistan joined the US-led international coalition against terrorism in September.

As a wave of street protests by radical parties tapered off after the Taliban rout in Afghanistan, Musharraf last week vowed to rein in what he called the "extremist minority."

Under the proposed regulatory regime, madrassas, or religious schools, will be registered and their accounts periodically audited, sources said.

Registration will be subject to prior clearance by security agencies and authorities will be empowered to close any unapproved school or seminary, they said.

Registered schools will be required to introduce teaching of modern subjects side by side with religious education in order to bring them into the mainstream of the national educational system, an interior ministry official has said.

Religious parties and groups operate around 7,000 schools countrywide with the help of financial contributions from sympathizers at home and abroad.

More than half a million children and adults live and study in religious schools, thousands of them Afghans and hundreds from Arab countries.

Pakistani volunteers from various seminaries have fought in Afghanistan alongside the hardline Taliban militia.

The majority of the Taliban leadership also studied in Pakistani madrassas in southwestern Baluchistan province and North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar studied for four years in Darul-aloom Haqqania at Akora Khatak in NWFP besides Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel.

Pakistan has for years been affected by Muslim sectarian violence which claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade in attacks between militants of majority Sunni and minority Shiite communities.

Many of the assailants have taken refuge in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, among them wanted terrorist Riaz Basra, for whom a reward of five million rupees (around 83,000 dollars) has been posted.

The Taliban were frequently asked by Islamabad to extradite the criminals but they refused.

Pakistani police blame the rise in sectarian violence on what they claim is the indoctrination of youth studying in the madrassas.

"By and large they work as religious indoctrination centers, instilling extremist and sectarian beliefs into the minds of the wards," a police officer said.

"The youths participate in rallies and demonstrations, making up the street power of the radical parties that have a negligible vote bank and performed miserably in all elections held in the country," the interior ministry official said.

Earlier this year, Musharraf launched a campaign to seize unauthorised weapons in a bid to reduce violence. More than 100,000 weapons have been seized since.