Religious schools feeling the heat

Lahore, Pakistan - LOOMING over the backstreets and alleys in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore, is the marble white dome of Jamia Naeemia, one of city's largest Sunni Muslim seminaries.

Inside, students in prayer caps stroll across a marble courtyard. Young children squat on carpets and pore over religious texts.

Muhammad Sarfraz Naeemi, the scholar who runs the madrasa, says that the school has one purpose: to educate young men and women about Islam "as a way of life". On offer are free lessons and food for more than 1700 students, which, Dr Naeemi says, are paid for through "donations from the community".

But Dr Naeemi, 58, says his work is being chipped away by a Government that is "under pressure from Tony Blair and George Bush". Since the London attacks last July, when it emerged that one of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, had visited a seminary near Lahore, there has been a crackdown on foreigners coming to Pakistan's madrasas.

Tanweer's family had spoken of his radical transformation after his last visit to Pakistan just months before boarding a Tube train and blowing it up. Visas for a madrasa education are now difficult to get and students have been expelled.

With the emergence of a Pakistan connection in the most recent plot to down planes mid-flight, the seminaries are expecting a fresh onslaught. Rashid Rauf, the Briton suspected of being the alleged plot's ringleader, spent time in Lahore before his arrest. There have also been unconfirmed reports that at least five others have been arrested in the city in the past nine days.

Religious schools, says Dr Naeemi, are feeling persecuted and victimised. "We had people from UK, Europe, America and they came here for education, which is a human right. Now they are being denied," he said.

Dr Naeemi says the problem lies inside Britain and the US, not Pakistan. "It is Muslims born there and brought up there who are doing these attacks."

He says the alleged plot to blast planes from the skies above the US is nothing more than a way to "divert the attention away from what is happening in Lebanon".

The syllabus in his seminary revolves mostly around religion.

Students learn Islamic history, law and philosophy, and are expected to be able to recite all 6666 verses of the Koran. Fourteen-year-old Umar Ali has memorised 13 of the 30 volumes of Islam's holy book. "My father wanted me to be an imam so I can work in a mosque," he says.

Some experts worry that Pakistan does too little to monitor essentially unregulated religious institutions — sowing the seeds of radicalism for future generations. "Madrasas are intensely sectarian," said Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group. "Not only do they teach hatred of Jews and Hindus, they also talk of fellow Muslims from different sects as enemies. It is not an education system I think the state should yield to."

Perhaps the most obvious example of how Islamic groups have become a powerful force in Pakistan is the charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Its head, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, is also the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamic group that India accuses of sending Pakistanis to fight in Kashmir. Lashkar was banned in Pakistan in 2002.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa remained in Pakistan, running madrasas and hospital services. It arrived within hours of the Kashmiri earthquake last October to help victims. Yet earlier this year Jamaat was designated as a "global terrorist" organisation by the US. Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest last week.

Jamaat's spokesman, Yahya Mujahid, denied the arrest had anything to do with Pakistani investigations. "We do not run any (militant) training camps, only schools and hospitals."