'Secular' education for Bangladeshi clerics

The United Nations in Bangladesh has launched what it says is a groundbreaking scheme to train future Muslim clerics in sex-education, Aids and women's empowerment.

The course is the first of its kind in the country and is being held at the prestigious Imam Training Academy which trains Muslim clerics in Dhaka.

The aim is to help imams, or Muslim clerics, offer secular as well as spiritual counselling to their flock.

The syllabus at the Academy has been expanded so that future Muslim clerics will no longer just study Islamic theology and the Quran.

As part of the United Nations project, the students are also being taught about human rights and women's empowerment.

Welcome move

For the first time, they are learning about several sometimes-taboo issues such as family planning and Aids, the immune-deficiency disease.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) spokeswoman Lisa Hiller says, "the main reason for this is because studies have shown that the awareness of HIV AIDS is not very widespread in Bangladesh.

So, because there are over 200,000 mosques in the country, this is one of the best ways to reach people with the message about HIV-Aids," she says.

The secular addition to the curriculum at the training college appears to have been welcomed by most of the 50 people training to become imams.

Policemen next

They say it will put them in a good position to advise their flock on spiritual questions as well as difficult everyday issues.

One of the students said: "We wholeheartedly welcome this initiative because it's really helpful for us to be more aware of social problems."

"Islam doesn't shy away from sensitive issues like family planning.

So, we feel what we are learning is compatible with our religion," he said.

The United Nations says that the course has been so successful that it has plans to expand it so that recruits to the Bangladeshi police force can also benefit in the next few weeks.