Pakistan Islamic groups protest move to send home foreign Koran students

Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistani authorities said 800 suspected militants had now been arrested in raids following the deadly London bombings as Islamic groups protested a move to expel 1,400 foreign Koran students.

Police after Friday prayers had arrested 200 more preachers and prayer leaders for allegedly inciting anti-Western and sectarian hatred in their sermons, a government official monitoring the crackdown told AFP Saturday.

"We are monitoring sermons at mosques and other places regularly, and we will continue this process to weed out the problem of propagation of hatred," said a senior security official, who asked not to be identified.

The latest arrests came as President Pervez Musharraf ordered foreigners or holders of dual citizenship to be expelled from Pakistan's madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, sparking anger among Islamic groups.

Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said Saturday authorities were now checking the foreign students' visas and would cancel those still valid in order to repatriate them to their home countries.

"There are 1,400 foreign students in the Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and we have decided to send all of them back to their countries," Sherpao said.

"We have decided to repatriate them because we don't want to see our country defamed if any of these students are found involved in any terrorist activities in future."

Foreign madrassa students and Islamic leaders voiced dismay over the order.

"Everybody has a right to get knowledge," said Abdul Samad of Britain, one of about 100 foreigners enrolled in Karachi's Jamia Binoria seminary, run by the deeply fundamentalist Sunni Deoband sect.

"We come here to learn the Koran and not extremism or terrorism."

Liaqat Baluch, deputy parliamentary leader of the six-party religious alliance the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, told AFP: "It is an undemocratic and unconstitutional decision by a leader who has no political support.

"He (Musharraf) is taking such cosmetic decisions to please the West and perpetuate his rule. There is nothing in our constitution which bars foreign students from getting Islamic education in Pakistan.

"This decision will defame Pakistan and hurt our relations with other Muslim countries," he said. "Denying anyone the right to (religious) education is sheer ignorance."

Musharraf later Saturday said fundamentalists were defaming him and stressed he was a "true Muslim" as he addressed a crowd of thousands in Mingora, in the staunchly Islamic North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

"Do not believe what they say about me," said Musharraf, who was wearing traditional white shalwar-kameez garments. "They are painting a negative picture about me among you people."

Musharraf on Friday also pledged to continue the raids, register Pakistan's more than 10,000 seminaries and enforce a ban on anti-Western sermons in his crackdown on Pakistan's radical Islamic underground.

Britain has urged Pakistan to move against radical madrassas after news that some of the British suicide-bombers had previously visited Pakistan and that one may have studied in a madrassa there.

Musharraf said no one linked to the July 7 attacks had been arrested.

"The investigation is going on," he said Friday. "It's a little premature to draw a conclusion. It's a very tedious job."

However, as part of the sweep, police this week arrested Hashim Qadeer, a suspect in the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

US President George W. Bush later phoned Musharraf, whom White House spokesman Scott McClellan called "a good partner in the global war on terrorism", Pakistan's state-run APP news agency reported.

Madrassas offer free religious education and board for more than one million Pakistani children, especially in areas neglected by state education services, but some have been targeted for preaching a militant brand of Islam.

Musharraf stressed that not all madrassas, also called madaris here, are hotbeds for hatred, calling them "the world's biggest non-governmental organization helping the poorest segment of the society".

Many hardline schools were set up, sometimes with American and Saudi funding, as indoctrination and military training sites during the 1979-1989 US-backed war against the Soviet occupation in neighbouring Afghanistan.