New law soon to monitor seminaries

The government said on Wednesday it was set to launch a long-delayed plan to monitor seminaries, which have often been accused of breeding religious extremists.

Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat told Reuters that a new law to monitor and regulate the seminaries, or madrassahs, would be put before cabinet in about a month.

"The policy is aimed at monitoring the activities of these madrassahs of these organizations, keeping a watch on their performance," Mr Faisal said. There are thousands of religious schools across Pakistan, mostly run by Islamic groups which strongly oppose any government regulation. They are popular with the poor, because they offer free education and sometimes free board.

The schools supplied thousands of recruits for the hardline Taliban militia in Afghanistan, and Afghan officials say madrassahs in Pakistan are still used to recruit militants to fight for the ousted militia. But the minister said the vast majority of the madrassahs were just educational institutions. They teach mostly Islam, some rudimentary mathematics and other sciences.

"We have no problem with them. The problem arises with a few madrassahs," he said. Pakistan, a key ally of the United States-led war on terror, has often been accused of harbouring militants. Before the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Islamabad was a key backer of the Taliban, but the minister said officials had worked around the clock since then to counter militancy.

"We have been burning our midnight oil. Particularly after Sept 11, the security situation has undergone a radical change," Hayat said.

"Pakistani security agencies and Pakistani personnel have been deployed and involved round-the-clock in undertaking operations at the western borders as well as within Pakistan."

Pakistani officials say they have arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda members and Taliban remnants in the past two years. Most of these were handed over to the United States.

"We have been successful to a very high degree having apprehended, and to a large extent, neutralized the threat posed by the Al Qaeda and its affiliates also," he said.