Afghan President Karzai seeks international help building madrassas, or Islamic schools

AP Photo RMX103

By AMIR SHAH

Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan needs more international help to build Islamic schools so fewer students will attend more radical ones outside the country, President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday.

Karzai said parents would not know what their children study in Islamic schools or madrassas outside the country -- an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan, with whom relations have been prickly.

"I wish all international communities, especially Islamic countries, would help us in constructing madrassas," Karzai said at an education conference in the capital, Kabul. He did not specify any countries.

"Our students should be inside our country under the control of our religious scholars and clerics," he said.

Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said Afghanistan is building a "modern system of madrassas" offering a broad-based Islamic education.

He said Afghan parents do not want their children studying in "hate madrassas" abroad.

About 91,000 Afghan pupils -- less than 2 percent of the country's 5.8 million students -- now attend 336 madrassas nationwide.

Atmar recently said that when militant violence forces Afghan schools to close, students are left with no schooling or they attend madrassas in Pakistan, where he said they would be "professionally trained as terrorists."

A Pakistan religious affairs ministry employee said his country's madrassas were educating students well.

Atmar said the Afghan government has asked international military construction teams to help build madrassas.

The U.S. military has built two educational facilities and is building five more in eastern Afghanistan called centers for educational excellence -- though some Afghans would call them madrassas -- said spokesman Lt. Col. David Accetta. He said the boarding schools offer a balanced curriculum that includes religious studies.

"It's not what you would expect, I think, if you called it a madrassa," Accetta said. "A madrassa in most people's minds is a school where there is extremist religious education, and that's not what we're doing."

Atmar said militants destroyed 98 schools and forced 590 more to close in the past year, denying over 300,000 children the opportunity to go to school. Attacks have killed 147 children and teachers in the last year.

"However, the terrorists have miserably failed to break the will of our people," Atmar said. "Afghan parents continue to send their children to schools (and) rebuild the schools destroyed."