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Pakistan's schools attracts students from the world.

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    Pakistan's schools attracts students from the world.

    KARACHI, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Pakistan's religious schools have an image problem. For hundreds of thousands of students from Afghanistan to Sudan , they are a highway to heaven, but for Western critics, they are training camps for terrorists.

    ``Unfortunately, whenever a report comes about Moslem institutions, especially in the Western media, you normally find inaccurate presumptions,'' said Mohammad Taqi Usmani, vice-president of a Karachi madrassah, or religious school.

    Madrassahs in Pakistan are thought to number up to 15,000 -- the government has no official figures -- and range in size from one-student rooms connected to a mosque to Usmani's school, which is believed to have the most students in the country.

    Their stated aim is the advancement of Islam through rigorous study as well as more general education to ready the devout to take part in normal life.

    But the schools, which are largely unregulated by government, have been linked to terrorism and Islamic militancy, especially since Afghanistan's ruling Taleban movement grew out of madrassahs in the early 1990s.

    The movement espouses an ultra-conservative form of the faith which has earned it notoriety in the West, mainly because of the strict rules it enforces on women, who are largely denied work and education in Afghanistan and must wear a veil.

    Madrassahs have also come under attack because some, mainly in the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, give weapons training and provide the starry-eyed recruits with which the Taleban is trying to increase its 90 percent control of the country.

    U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the end of November blasted the growing presence of non-Afghan fighters ``from religious schools in Pakistan'' fighting in aid of the Taleban.


    That extreme image has been difficult for the mainstream madrassahs to overcome, said Usmani, who is also a member of the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

    ``They are a kind of education institution you can hardly find in any other part of the world. They bring up a generation of Moslems whose purpose is to serve Islam and society,'' he said.

    ``It is a very crude injustice to say of these people that they are terrorists,'' said Usmani.''Our main focus is Islamic studies, to learn the holy Koran, the fundamentals of faith.''

    He points to his Darul-Uloom school -- the name means House of Knowledge -- as an example of that type of school.

    With 4,000 students spread across a sprawling campus in a rundown part of Karachi, it presents an image at odds with the extremes sometimes associated with Islamic religious schools.

    About half of the school's students live on its 66-acre (27-hectare) campus in a sprawling industrial area of Karachi. About 500 are girls, who are taught in separate classes.

    The school attracts students by word of mouth and has applicants from around the world, including India, the United States, China and Australia. Limited space means up to 2,000 applicants are turned away each year.

    Lodging and tuition are free, and the five million rupees ($98,000) it costs a month to run the school comes mostly from donations, Usmani said.

    In addition to religious studies and Arabic, there are also courses in Islamic jurisprudence, English and computer science.


    There is five years of primary school, followed by eight years of Arabic and specialised Islamic studies, which Usmani said was equal to a masters degree.

    Those who are trying to separate the conflicting images of Islamic institutions such as madrassahs found an ally when the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam, made a recent keynote speech seeking to dispel fears in Moslem countries that the West was on a collision course with the Islamic world.

    Milam said he wanted to correct the notion that the United States was against Islam because it wanted the Taleban to expel Osama bin Laden, wanted in the United States for his alleged role in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa last year.

    ``Because we oppose all terrorist organisations...including terrorist groups that purport to be acting in defence of Islam, does not mean that we are hostile to all Islamic organisations,'' Milam said in a speech in Islamabad.

    But a resurgence of sectarian violence in Pakistan which killed more than 30 in Pakistan in less than two weeks in October, has brought media calls for crackdowns on some of the schools which offer more than traditional studies.

    The Dawn newspaper has urged the government to take a tough line with religious parties fanning sectarianism.

    ``The same holds true for madrassahs where the curriculum is not confined to religious studies...,'' the newspaper said in an editorial.

    The government responded to criticism that it does not keep a close watch on the schools by saying it would increase funding to some of them so they can offer courses such as mathematics in addition to religious studies.