By Drazen Jorgic
QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's army chief on Thursday criticised madrassas that have mushroomed nationwide for mostly teaching only Islamic theology, saying the country needs to "revisit" the religious school concept.
Modernising madrassa education is a thorny issue in Pakistan, a deeply conservative Muslim nation where religious schools are often blamed for radicalisation of youngsters but are the only education available to millions of poor children.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa's remarks, apparently off-the-cuff during a prepared speech, were a rare example of an army chief criticising madrassas, which are often built adjacent to mosques and underpin Islamisation efforts by religious hardliners.
Bajwa said a madrassa education in Pakistan was inadequate because it did not prepare students for the modern world.
"I am not against madrassas, but we have lost the essence of madrassas," Bajwa told a youth conference in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Bajwa said he was recently told that 2.5 million students were being taught in madrassas belonging to the Deobandi, a Sunni Muslim sub-sect that shares the beliefs of the strictly orthodox Wahhabi school of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula.
"So what will they become: will they become Maulvis (clerics) or they will become terrorists?" Bajwa asked, saying it was impossible to build enough mosques to employ the huge number of madrassa students.
"We need to look (at) and revisit the concept of madrassas...We need to give them a worldly education."
Pakistan has over 20,000 registered madrassas, though there are believed to be thousands more unregistered ones. Some are single-room schools with a handful of students studying the Koran.
Security services have kept a close eye on madrassas associated with radicalising youths and feeding recruits to Islamist militant outfits that have killed tens of thousands of people in the South Asian country since 2000.
But only a handful of the schools have been shut down, the authorities' hand stayed by fears of a religious backlash.
Islamist hardliners hold great sway in Pakistani society, with the capital, Islamabad, paralysed for nearly three weeks last month by a blockade staged by a newly formed ultra-religious party.
Bajwa said poor education was holding back the nation of 207 million people, and especially in madrassas.
"Most of them are just teaching theology. So what are their chances? What is their future in this country?"
The military last year proposed a plan to deradicalise religious hard-liners by "mainstreaming" some into political parties, a plan initially rejected by the civilian government but which now appears to be taking form.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; editing by Mark Heinrich)