Religious Schools Upset in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Islamic clerics, representing thousands of religious schools in Pakistan, threatened Saturday to launch nationwide demonstrations to protest new laws that would regulate their finances, the enrollment of overseas students and prevent the teaching of Islamic extremism.

After attending a meeting with top government officials to discuss the new rules, the heads of religious schools gave the government two weeks to withdraw the new regulations or face the protests.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat, an alliance of organizations representing most of some 8,000 religious schools, said it would organize street demonstrations if the new regulations were not abandoned.

"We neither give training in militancy to anyone nor collect donations in the name of Jihad (holy war)," the statement said. "Our sole aim is to prepare Islamic scholars."

Yet they refused to identify the sources of their funding, a key demand by the government.

Some of Pakistan's madrassas are considered key training grounds of Islamic militancy. Some produced Muslim scholars who later became central figures in the Taliban movement in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's military government announced new laws which would have madrassas register with the government, introduce subjects like math, science, English and other skills in their syllabus, seek government permission before admitting foreign students and to disclose their funding sources.

Government officials have also said extremism would not be taught in the schools but have not explained how they define the term.

Clerics who defy the new ordinance face penalties of up to 2 years in prison.

The plan has outraged many religious leaders, who say government interference in the madrassas is illegal and against the spirit of Islam.

Madrassas operate with no state supervision and in many schools learning focusses more on rote memorization of Arabic religious texts than social sciences and other subjects.

Religious Affairs Minister Ghazi Mahmood Ahmed hosted Saturday's meeting and conceded afterward that no agreement had been reached. He said another meeting would be held within two weeks.

An official who attended the meeting said, on condition of anonymity, that the clerics were told that the government would not back down on the regulations.

Sajid Mir, the head of an organization which represents hundreds of madrassas, said clerics would never let the government direct what is taught in madrassas.

"We would definitely resist if the government forced (through) this ordinance," Sajid told reporters. He refused to elaborate.

The government is particularly concerned about thousands of foreigners studying at the madrassas without any official registration. The clerics were told that these students were a threat to Pakistan's security, the official said.

A survey by the Interior Ministry recently counted almost 18,000 foreigners among the more than 600,000 students in madrassas across Pakistan.

The regulations dovetail with a slate of anti-terrorism policies pushed in recent months by President Pervez Musharraf, the United States' main ally in anti-terrorism efforts in this region.

Musharraf has promised both the United States and his rival, India, that he will act to prevent militants from sowing chaos in disputed Kashmir to the east, Afghanistan to the west and in Pakistan itself.

Musharraf says his moves against militants are for the good of Pakistan. Conservative Islamic groups say he has sold out to the West to keep power.

In October, madrassas served as bases for the waves of anti-American and anti-Musharraf protests that swept Pakistan.

In recent months, some Pakistani madrassas have been suspected of offering haven to members of al-Qaida, the terrorist network suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.