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Tajik leader wants children out of religious schools
* Rakhmon decries religious schools abroad
* Says students will return home as "terrorists"
* Reflects fears of radical Islam, but critics cry foul
By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE, Aug 25 (Reuters) - The president of mostly Muslim Tajikistan urged parents to withdraw their children from religious schools abroad, an appeal reflecting fears of radical Islam gaining ground in the Central Asian nation.
President Imomali Rakhmon, in televised remarks to textile factory workers in a town near the border with Afghanistan, said he was concerned Tajik children attending such schools could return home as "terrorists".
"All parents who have sent their children to be educated at religious schools abroad -- I would like to ask and urge you to bring them back to their homeland, because most of these schools are not religious," Rakhmon said on Tuesday.
"Your children will become extremists, terrorists, and will turn into enemies and traitors of the Tajik nation."
Most Tajiks cannot afford it, but sending a child to study in a nation such as Saudi Arabia is a source of prestige, and returning students are often granted a great deal of respect.
The government's religious affairs committee said two months ago that there were "dozens of Tajiks" studying at religious schools and universities abroad.
Analysts say deepening economic hardship and social problems are pushing Tajiks toward radical Islam, threatening stability in the otherwise secular nation of seven million.
Industrial output declined by 6.3 percent last year in Tajikistan, one of the poorest former Soviet republics.
Tajik authorities frequently arrest and jail members of Muslim movements that are not endorsed by the government, describing them as extremists. The government has also sought to close down unregistered schools teaching Islam in Tajikistan.
Rakhmon said the government's religion committee would determine how many religious leaders the country needs and "send them to religious institutions that do not have extremist or terrorist aims".
Central Asia governments have been clamping down on what they see as growing religious extremism in the predominantly Muslim but secular former Soviet region, following a rise in clashes between security forces and armed gangs that local governments say could be linked to the Taliban.
Human rights groups have accused Central Asian governments of using the Islamist threat as an excuse to crack down on political dissent in a region where, as in Soviet times, alternative views are often branded as extremist.
However, security analysts say that radical groups are gaining strength in the region, emboldened by people's growing frustration with economic hardship.
Rakhmon's plea coincided with a manhunt for at least 25 armed inmates who authorities say escaped from a jail in the capital on Monday after killing five guards in a shootout.
Sources in the security services said the escapees included citizens of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Russia's insurgency-plagued North Caucasus who were among 46 people sentenced to long prison terms last week on accusations of plotting to overthrow the government.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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