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Pakistan Backs Off Saturday Deadline for Foreigners to Quit Religious Schools

Pakistani authorities have eased demands that local religious schools, known as madrassahs, expel hundreds of foreign students by December 31. The revised policy comes as the schools' leaders, many accused of fostering religious extremism, have vowed to resist the year-end deadline.

The government delay avoids a possible showdown with the religious schools and their supporters, who insist they cannot and will not comply with the government order.

But officials insist their policy banning foreign students from attending Pakistan's religious schools remains intact, and are urging the madrassahs to expel foreigners as soon as possible.

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao says up to 65 percent of the estimated 1,400 foreign students have already returned home, and the government is working with school leaders to return the rest. "We have asked the provincial governments to get in touch with the administration of those madrassahs, and ask them to send these boys back," he said. "The policy is that we have to deport them, and we will deport them, as soon as possible."

But officials are pointedly not providing any specific deadlines, and the revised policy is widely seen as a government retreat.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf issued the original decree, including the year-end deadline, five months ago, as part of a broader policy to rid the country of religious extremism. The new policy was announced after the July 7 terrorist attacks in London, which killed more than 50 people. Three of the four suicide bombers involved were of Pakistani origin, and at least one was linked to a Pakistani Madrassah.

Officials blame the schools for promoting religious extremism, and many have a history of supporting militant movements, like Afghanistan's Taleban, which harbored the al-Qaida terror network.

There are more than 12,000 madrassas across Pakistan, reaching an estimated one million students every year.

The schools' supporters say the government is unfairly targeting them under pressure from the United States. Hanif Jalandari, a senior cleric and a member of the country's largest association of Islamic seminaries, condemns the government policy toward the Islamic schools. He says the policy is both unconstitutional and unIslamic, passed without domestic political support, or any input from the schools themselves. Students, he says, will not be expelled.

Madrassah leaders from around the country are meeting in Islamabad January 1 to announce an official response to the government's policy.