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ISLAMABAD: Through­out the past week, opposition parties have been cautioning the government against picking sides in the ongoing standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia, saying that it could have a potentially dangerous sectarian fallout for the country.

Led by PPP’s Syed Khursheed Shah, Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, leaders of nearly all opposition parties and some treasury members such as PkMAP’s Mehmood Khan Achakzai have said that taking a partisan stance will only “create unrest in the streets”.

Similarly, after meeting the Iranian and Saudi ambassadors in Islamabad, PTI chief Imran Khan asked the government to simply play a role in easing tensions between the two countries.

Their fears appear well-founded when examined in the perspective of information recently released by the interior ministry.

A list of seminaries receiving foreign funding, compiled by the ministry, reveals that around one-third of the 285 such institutions receive funds from Shia-majority Iran and Iraq, while two-thirds receive funds from the Sunni-dominated Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

In Punjab, there are some 147 madressahs that rely on various Middle Eastern countries for financial assistance. Of these, only 25 get funds from Iran, while the rest are financed by the Saudi bloc.

The semi-autonomous region of Gigilt Baltistan, which is known for its acerbic sectarian divide, has 95 seminaries that receive financial assistance from abroad on a regular basis. One third of the madressahs here are supported by Saudi Arabia, while the rest rely on Iran.

There are 30 such seminaries in Balochistan, with 25 of them linked to Saudi Arabia and the rest to Iran. Under the PPP government, Balochistan was witness to some deadly sectarian attacks against Shias, such as the bombing of Alamdar Road that claimed the lives of over 100 people.

Surprisingly though, the interior ministry only knows of 12 madressahs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that receive funds from abroad, all of them financed by the Sunni bloc of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In Sindh, the only case reported is that of the Madressah Ameer-i-Dolat Qatar-o-Darululoom Hanfi, situated in Orangi Town, Karachi. The madressah was built on a plot donated by the government of Qatar some 40 years ago and is currently home to around 500 girl students. It is still financially supported by the government of Qatar.

The report, in some cases, also highlights the religious scholars who regularly travel abroad for fund-raising purposes.

For example, to run the Madressah Khair-ul-Madaris on Aurangzaib Road in Multan, Mohammad Hanif Jalandhari, a key leader of the Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia, visited Saudi Arabia and certain European countries to raise funds.

Similarly, Maulana Tariq Jameel has supported the Madressah Arbia Qadria Eid Gah in Khanewal by collecting funds during visits to Saudi Arabia and the European Union.

Madressah Mukhzan-ul-Aloom Jafria Bazaar Suraj Miani, Multan, according to the report, gets its funding from wealthy Iranians through Allama Mohammad Tariq Naqvi, who manages the seminary.

In most cases, no amount received from foreign countries has been mentioned. This lack of information is what is hampering the government’s efforts to regulate madressahs under the National Action Plan.

A senior official from the interior division told Dawn that the practice of untraceable donations from Saudi Arabia and Iran to their respective lobbies was a trend that had been in vogue since the regime of General Ziaul Haq, and it would take some time to root out this practice.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2016