(Reuters) - Pakistani forces stormed the Red Mosque compound in Islamabad on Tuesday, killing about 50 militants, as they fought their way through an Islamic school where they believed a rebel cleric was holding women and children hostage.
Here are key facts about madrasas, or Islamic schools, in Pakistan:
— Pakistan has about 13,000 madrasas, according to official estimates. They provide rudimentary schooling, free religious education, shelter and food to about 1 million boys from poor families. Some are centers of higher learning, teaching different schools of Islamic thought, philosophy and jurisprudence. There are a very few madrasas for girls, of which the Jamia Hafsa in the Red Mosque complex is one.
— According to a March 2007 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank, well-founded estimates put the number of madrasas in the country at about 20,000.
— Most madrasas teach the Deobandi school of thought, a hardline interpretation of Islam whose adherents include Afghanistan’s Taliban movement and most Pakistani militant groups. A few are little more than fronts for militant organizations, some critics say.
— Pakistan saw a spectacular rise in madrasa numbers in the 1980s when the schools, backed by funding from the West and Arab countries, became recruiting grounds for Islamic volunteers fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Some madrasas later supplied recruits for the Taliban regime, which was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda militants.
— Madrasas are funded through collections or from donations from abroad or from big business and even multinationals in Pakistan. Some rent out space for shops, often on illegally occupied state land.
— President Pervez Musharraf launched a drive in 2002 to reform madrasas, but it faltered because of opposition from hardline groups.
— There were fresh efforts following revelations that three of the four bombers in the July 7, 2005, attacks on London were Muslims of Pakistani origin, and that at least one of them was believed to have visited madrasas in Pakistan.
— About 1,400 foreign students were ordered to leave in July 2005. Officials say many have left and of the 600 to 700 enrolled, half have got permission from their governments to stay.
— The International Crisis Group says efforts to reform the seminaries are in a shambles, and madrasas have thrived because of the government’s dependence on religious parties.