KARACHI -- The signing of an agreement between the Pakistani government and the Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP) to streamline madrassas and halt the spread of extremist ideology is drawing praise from officials across the country.
The government on August 29 inked an agreement with the ITMP, a body representing madrassas of five schools of thoughts in the country.
Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood and the ITMP leaders signed the accord to bring religious schools under its control, streamline religious education, incorporate modern subjects in their curriculum and make their funding transparent.
Successive Pakistani governments –- both civilian and military -- have attempted to regulate madrassas in the past, but these efforts were unsuccessful, mainly because of pressure from Islamist groups that assail the reforms as an anti-Islam western plot.
Pakistan has as many as 30,000 religious schools or madrassas, with more than 3 million students enrolled in courses ranging from the memorisation of the Koran to specialisation in Arabic literature and Islamic jurisprudence.
'A great achievement'
The registration and regulation of madrassas are one of the 20 objectives of the National Action Plan (NAP), the government's counter-terrorism policy adopted in January 2015 after Taliban militants killed more than than 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar.
The provincial governments have completed the geo-tagging (the collection of details of the location and size) of most of the madrassas to help law enforcement agencies have their exact location for surveillance purposes.
After several meetings with the ITMP leaders, a consensus emerged over regulating the madrassas and on halting the spread of religious intolerance, said Mahmood.
"It is a great achievement of the current government," Mahmood said.
Analysts also lauded the government's efforts.
"The government and madrassa bodies both showed their seriousness in formulating a strategy to regulate the madrassas," said Muhammad Israr Madani, head of the International Research Council for Religious Affairs (IRCRA), an Islamabad-based independent advocacy group.
This time the government avoided registering madrassas separately on a sectarian basis and instead formulated a uniform policy that will help to reduce sectarian differences in the future, he said.
Madrassa leaders also are satisfied with the government's efforts.
"It was our long-standing demand that the responsibility should be given to the Education Ministry," said Maulana Ibrahim Sakargahi, a spokesperson of Wifaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, one of the five madrassa boards.
Previously, several ministries and government bodies -- such as those that manage commerce, the interior and religious affairs -- supervised the madrassas, he said.
Making funding transparent
Under the agreement, all madrassas operating in the country must register with the Education Ministry. If one refuses, the government will close it and prohibit it from opening bank accounts. The ministry will open 12 centres across the country to help madrassas register with the government.
Pakistan in recent years has strengthened its efforts against money laundering and terror financing by freezing hundreds of bank accounts of unregistered madrassas.
After implementing the NAP, the State Bank of Pakistan, the country's central bank, started tracking the sources of funding of madrassas, according to a State Bank of Pakistan senior official who is familiar with the process. He requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The central bank had suspended bank accounts of madrassas that declined to reveal their funding sources or register under the new mechanism introduced by the government, he said.
Banks also were advised not to open new accounts for madrassas until they have registered with the government, he added.
Since December, banks and other financial institutions operating in Pakistan started verifying account holders' identities through biometrics.
The madrassas also have agreed to include modern subjects in their curricula under the agreement.
"Madrassas were under severe criticism for not teaching liberal subjects such as social science and general history," said Arshad Yousafzai, a Karachi-based journalist covering education.
"That is influencing the students studying in the madrassas, making them conservative, intolerant and anti-pluralistic," Yousafzai said.
Madrassa students will now take degree examinations in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades, as do students of other schools, and will receive certificates, said Mahmood the federal minister.
Under the agreement, the government has said it will help foreign students who want to study in Pakistani madrassas obtain visas. They would be allowed to study in the country for up to nine years.