Foreign madrassa students leaving Pakistan under new policy

Two Nepalese religious students left Pakistan, the first of more than 1,400 foreigners who will be deported in a government crack down on extremism at the country's Islamic schools.

Ahmad Ali, 20, and Shabnum Shagufa, 19, students at the Jamia Naeemia 'madrassa' or religious school in the eastern city of Lahore, decided to return to Nepal after authorities warned that foreign students at madrassas could be arrested unless they left the country by September.

"I feel sad that I could not complete my education," Ali told The Associated Press before crossing by land into India. He said that Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf had "wrongly punished foreign students."

"We are peace-loving people. We are against terrorism," he said. "What was our fault? ... Does the government have any charge against us?"

Ali had been studying at the madrassa for four years, and needed four more years to complete his studies. Shagufa, who is Ali's aunt, had been there for three years.

Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, is facing international pressure to curb extremism in the thousands of seminaries across Pakistan - particularly after reports emerged that two of the bombers in the attacks that killed 56 people on the London transport system on July 7 had visited Pakistan and may have gone to madrassas.

Most of the madrassas in Pakistan are funded by private donations or by religious political parties. A few are believed to receive money from Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya, but the schools rarely acknowledge such foreign assistance, usually saying the money comes from individual donors living abroad.

Since the 1980s, madrassas have been a recruiting ground for Islamic militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but they also provide an education for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis poorly served by the state schooling system.

Musharraf has faced criticism at home for the plan to expel foreign students, with opponents, particularly from religious-based parties, saying it is unjustified.

Most of foreign students come from Arab and African countries, but others hail from other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States.

Sarfraz Naeemi, the head of Lahore's Jamia Naeemia school - which teaches both boys and girls in a segregated environment - said they asked Ali and Shagufa to go home because "we want to respect new government policy about madrassas."

He said all foreigners would be expelled from the school, but declined to say how many were enrolled there.

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