- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

JOHANNESBURG — Authorities in South Africa are worried that large numbers of Islamic extremists from Pakistan are entering the country illegally to join religious schools or “madrassas,” some of which may have links to international terrorism.

A spokesman for the South African Ministry of Home Affairs, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues, told The Washington Times that while more than 12,000 Pakistanis visit the country each year as genuine tourists, there has been an alarming jump in the number of illegal immigrants.

The South African Embassy in Islamabad “issues visas to Pakistani nationals wishing to visit South Africa on holiday or business,” he said, “and that number is fairly steady. Last year, it was 12,666 and the figures so far show a 10 percent increase for 2003.

“But while we had to deport 513 illegal immigrants back to Pakistan in 2003, this year’s figure shows an increase of more than 40 percent.”

In Pakistan, the government of President Pervez Musharraf has been closing down the more extreme madrassas as part of its program to combat terrorism, and a recent report suggested that students were heading abroad to continue their studies.

South Africa is believed to be one of the top destinations, in part because of the country’s modern communications infrastructure and the widespread use of English.

Immigration officials in Pretoria say the students travel first to Mozambique, crossing from there illegally into South Africa. More than 1 million Mozambicans work in South Africa and there is a constant flow of people across the border, much of which is open bushland.

A recent report from the World Bank estimated that 2 million students are enrolled at more than 10,000 madrassas across India and Pakistan.

The information officer at the Pakistani Embassy in Pretoria said his government is concerned about the flow of illegal immigrants from Pakistan to South Africa via Mozambique, but that the office was working closely with South African authorities to combat the problem.

“Our government has taken a tough stand on any potential terror threat, religious or otherwise,” he said, “and we will continue to work with the authorities in South Africa and other countries to make sure that our nationals are not involved in any activity that could cause harm to others.”

Muslim officials in South Africa say there has been a surge in the construction of madrassas in the country in recent years to deal with the influx of foreign students barred from schools in Pakistan and the Middle East. The majority of the new schools are located in Cape Town, with others in Johannesburg and Durban.

Ihsaan Hendriks, deputy chairman of South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council, recently told the Agence France-Presse news service: “Several Islamic colleges have been established in South Africa for local Muslim communities and for Muslims in neighboring countries.”

Mufti Muhammad Jamil, spokesman for the Pakistan-based Federation of Madrassas, told the news service last month that some 500 foreign students who had been in Pakistani Islamic schools have relocated to South Africa.

“Others are also planning to pack their bags,” he added.

U.S. diplomats have expressed concern about lax border controls in South Africa in the past, saying the country could be used by smuggling and human-trafficking operations run by international terror groups.

“We and the South African government are aware of illegal movement through and immigration to South Africa by Pakistanis and others,” a State Department official said.

“The United States is working to assist South African authorities to strengthen the country’s border controls,” the official said, adding the two countries have a “strong working relationship” on counterterrorism issues.

U.S. officials declined to comment on whether South Africa’s madrassas represent a particular source of concern.

It is not clear whether the new South African madrassas are promoting the same brand of militant, anti-Western Islam that prevails in many Pakistani schools.

The World Bank analysis noted that several factors contributed to the radicalization of Pakistan’s madrassa network, including funding from conservative, largely Saudi Muslim sources; an anti-Western backlash after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; and the failure of Pakistan’s secular government to provide social and economic opportunities in some of the country’s poorest regions.

The same radicalization of Islamic education also appears to be under way in Indonesia, the World Bank study warned. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country.

“The grim situation of madrassas in Pakistan, and increasingly in Indonesia, should serve as an example to all Muslim countries and Western powers that when education and religion become playing cards in the hands of politicians, the results are often disastrous,” the study said.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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