| Islamic religious students attend a class at Jamia Binoria madarsa in Karachi. (Reuters)
Islamabad, Dec. 30: In an apparent attempt to avoid confrontation with Islamic seminaries that host foreign students, the Pakistani government today said it is not cancelling the students’ visas but they have to leave the country “as soon as possible”.
A day before the deadline for the seminaries to register with the government expires, interior minister Aftab Sherpao said: “We are not cancelling their visas but would like them to return to their countries as soon as possible.”
The statement came in the wake of an announcement by the home department of the country’s largest province, Punjab ' that its authorities would launch an operation against 81 seminaries teaching foreign students, mostly from Afghanistan, the central Asian republics and Southeast Asian and African countries.
President Pervez Musharraf had asked over 13,000 religious seminaries ' madaris ' to get registered by December 31 and expel some 1,800 foreigners studying there.
Sherpao said Islamabad had asked the provinces to submit their reports after the deadline expired. The Union government will then deal with the non-complying seminaries and their foreign students.
Wifaqul-Madaris, the umbrella organisation for the seminaries, however, feared the move would throttle many and subject them to official coercion under various pretexts. Most clerics sounded defiant and seemed resolved to withstand the pressure.
“There will be a renewed crackdown against the seminaries but we will continue to oppose the registration and expulsion (of foreigners) as a matter of principle,” Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a hardline cleric, told The Telegraph.
Accused of al Qaida links following an operation against suspected seminaries and extremists after the July 7 London blasts, Ghazi had been declared absconder. The operation was launched soon after the UK named at least two Pakistan-origin Britons for their involvement in the attack.
Ghazi said Musharraf’s drive against foreign students and seminaries aims “to appease the US and (the) West”.
Most religious and political organisations, many of whom also run seminaries, accuse Musharraf of following a US-led agenda against them under the cover of the “war against terrorism”.
Analysts believe that Musharraf’s outright support to the American war against terror has also won him enemies, who made two abortive attempts on his life in Rawalpindi two year ago.
Leaders and activists of outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan and Sipah-e Mohammad despise Musharraf since he banned them in January 2002.
Ghazi cautioned that any measure against religious institutions would undermine whatever good the registration process could have achieved.
The registration law, which underwent changes in August following rounds of negotiations between the government and representatives of the seminaries, makes it compulsory for madaris to get their annual accounts audited and refrain from teaching or publishing hate materials.
“With the passage of time, the clerics have realised the hidden mechanism in the law to throttle the seminaries,” Ghazi said, adding most schools now have reservations about the law and would like to negotiate a way out of the tricky situation.
An alliance of seminaries representing all major Muslim sects is meeting in Islamabad on January 1 to discuss how to confront the government’s determination on the registration and foreign students issue.
“General Musharraf’s deadline doesn’t matter much' it is cruel and unjust to force out foreign students who possess legal documents. None of them is wanted or suspected of involvement in any criminal or terrorist act,” said Hanif Jullandri, the convener of the alliance.