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Musharraf versus the madrassas

International | PAKISTAN: In a quest to show whose side he is on in the war on terror, Pakistan's president is leading the push to reopen Christian schools

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

AFTER MORE THAN THREE decades, Christian liberal arts education is on the rebound in Pakistan. More than 3,300 Pakistanis are now pursuing degrees at a Christian college-up from zero a year ago.

The rapid rise in enrollment stems from the reorganization of Forman Christian College as a church-run institution following 31 years of government control.

In 1972, the government of Pakistan nationalized hundreds of Christian schools and all of the nation's Christian colleges. Forman, established in 1864 and long considered the "crown jewel" of Presbyterian missions in Pakistan, was among them. In March, the Lahore institution was officially returned to the Christian community under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In September, Forman opened its doors again-as it had for 108 years prior to the government's grab-as a Christian institution.

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Government officials were unlikely to return a nationalized school to the church-in a country that is 97 percent Muslim-without active support from the head of state. It helps that President Pervez Musharraf is an alumnus of Forman. "He wants Pakistan to be open, liberal, and democratic, and for that he sees education as a key," said Alexander John Malik, the Anglican bishop of Lahore.

But his support is provoking terrorists. As Forman reopened this fall, al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman Al Zawahiri called for the overthrow of Mr. Musharraf, who he said in an audiotaped message aired by Al-Jazeera television was "betraying" Islam.

Pakistan's tiny Christian minority, long marginalized and allowed only a few Bible schools and seminaries, sees a supporter in Mr. Musharraf. "We will treat Christians as equal citizens of the country," he has said, repeating words from Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah half a century ago. "I am witness to their considerable services in the health and education sectors," said the famous Forman alum.

It took Mr. Musharraf to break a legal logjam over the status of Christian schools. In 1987, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the 1972 government seizure of Christian schools was unconstitutional. Small wonder: Article 20 unambiguously guarantees a religion the right "to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions." But even after the court's ruling, it took another 15 years of negotiations, with four successive heads of state, before the college was finally returned to its rightful owner. Mr. Musharraf, according to Mr. Malik, recognized that "it was a mistake and injustice to take the institutions of minorities."

Church-based education in Pakistan dates back to 1833, when Protestant missionaries first arrived. Self-identified Christians comprise only 2.3 percent of the population, but the church is widely recognized for the high quality of its historical educational services. Unlike the Islamic madrassas, which pay scant attention to math and science, world history, literature, and technology, Christian educators have been committed to liberal arts and sciences.

Pakistan's Christian leaders hope that eventually all Christian schools and colleges will be turned back to their church-based owners. Earlier this year Mr. Musharraf hinted that he supported additional turnovers following a service at the Mall Cathedral in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Lahore Diocese. "I am with you regarding the issue of the return of the nationalized Christian schools," he said.

His support of church-based education is not entirely sentimental. It's also a way to counteract the proliferation of madrassas, private Islamic schools that are widely regarded as fueling the jihadist theology behind al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

When Pakistan was founded in 1947, the nation had just 250 madrassas. By 1979, the number had risen to around 1,000, mostly turning out warriors for holy war against the Soviets who were fighting for control of Afghanistan.

Today, Pakistani sources estimate there may be anywhere from 7,000 to as many as 40,000 madrassas. They claim between 1.5 million and 3 million students. They in turn supply not only fighting manpower but mental warriors who produce radical Islamic propaganda.

One such group, according to Anthony Lobo, Roman Catholic bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, employs 500 journalists and publishes seven magazines, including one for women, one for youth, and one for children. "We thus have a state within a state where jihad groups have their own finance and their armies," he told a Washington gathering last year.

The popularity of madrassas goes beyond their radical ideology. Another reason for their rise is the deplorable condition of government schools. "Some consider the system to be in a virtual state of collapse," reported the Boston Group, an informal think tank made up mostly of Pakistani scholars and professionals. The group said students in Pakistan's state-run schools face overcrowded classrooms, inadequate and outdated teaching materials, and "a highly charged political situation." The result, the group concluded, "is that the vast, rather the overwhelming majority of students emerge from Pakistani universities and colleges with no significant social or technical skills."

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