ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's military government Wednesday barred foreign aid to Islamic seminaries, many of which produced Islamic militants like the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and ordered them to register with authorities.
The decision was part of moves by Pakistan, a key partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, to check Islamic extremism in the country of 140 million people.
Information Minister Nisar Memon told a news conference after a cabinet meeting chaired by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf that a decree had been approved allowing the seminaries, or madrassahs, to get government aid only if they agreed to impart modern education with religious teaching.
Madrassahs refusing to register themselves with special education boards to be set up by the government "will not be allowed to operate," the minister said.
Pakistan has thousands of madrassahs run by private Islamic groups or religio-political parties and many of their pupils from neighboring Afghanistan formed the radical Taliban movement in the 1990s that ruled that country for six years.
Many Pakistani pupils of these schools joined the Taliban to fight against an opposition alliance based in northern Afghanistan and later to oppose a U.S.-led punitive military campaign that toppled the Taliban government last December.
"A registered madrassah shall not receive any grant donation or aid from any foreign source or allow admission to foreign students or make appointment of (foreign) teachers without valid work visa and NOC (no-objection certificate) from the Ministry of Interior," Memon said.
"...any one who willfully contravenes any of the provisions of the ordinance shall attract closure of the madrassah or a fine, or both," he said.
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Memon said the number of madrassahs in Pakistan "runs in thousands" although he could not give an exact figure.
Islamic sects such as the majority Sunnis and the minority Shi'ites and sub-sects have their own madrassahs with their syllabi at times giving different interpretations of Islamic beliefs, which often leads to sectarian violence.
But Memon said the government would not interfere with the religious syllabi of the madrassahs but would insist that they introduce the additional subjects of science and mathematics, and English and Urdu languages.
Those not agreeing to introduce these four subjects would not be entitled to government aid, he said.
The respected Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in its annual report last March, accused the military government of failing to demolish the structures that promote militancy and terrorism despite backing the U.S-led war on terror.
That appeared to be a reference to the Islamic madrassahs and the government Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, widely accused of links to Islamic militant groups, especially those fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
Musharraf has banned seven extremist militant and sectarian organizations since a government crackdown on extremist groups began in August last year and arrested hundreds of activists.
He has also been urging clerics to modernize the madrassahs, which have in the past refused any government control.
The clerics are often accused of receiving donations from foreign Islamic governments or private groups of their sects without subjecting themselves to audit.
Under the new decree, "every registered madrassah shall maintain accounts and submit annual report to the respective board," Memon said.