Muslims Worry About Future of Islamic Schools

The well-tended grounds of Kandal province’s Om-Alqura Institute, home to about 600 Cham boys just days ago, were still and quiet Sunday morning. A few bare-chested Muk Kampul district policemen lounged in the shade outside an administrative building in the empty compound.

“I don’t know anything about the school,” the commander, who would not identify himself, said. “The students are gone, and the teachers have left Cambodia.”

At the government’s order, the school’s 28 foreign teachers had been ordered to leave the country by Saturday. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser Om Yentieng said Sunday that they had complied with the dictate. The students have dispersed to their villages.

The district police have been at the school since Thurs­day morning, the day after Min­istry of Interior police announced the arrests of three of the institute’s foreign teachers suspected of militancy and involvement with the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Across National Route 6 from the Om-Alqura Institute, looking out on the Mekong River, is another, smaller mosque built by the same Saudi-based NGO.

This temple, the Misjid Al­ramani mosque, is still open. Its worshippers are the 2,847 Cham Muslims living in the Chroy Metrei Leu village, many of whom housed and fed the students banished from across the street who were waiting days for family members to fetch them.

Village chief El Ma said the last 20 or so remaining students departed for home Sunday morning. “I feel sorry for the closing of the Om-Alqura Institute because I worry Cambodian Muslims of the next generation will not have a school to study in.“

El Ma said that very few Islamic schools are locally funded. Most receive support from Islamic groups based elsewhere in Southeast Asia or the Middle East. The government’s swift expulsion of the foreign faculty and shuttering of the school has left him and others fearful of association with those groups.

El Ma said he had met earlier Sunday morning with Cambodia’s highest-ranking Muslim cleric, or mufti, Sos Kamri, and CPP parliamentarian Othsman Hassan, also a Cham Muslim. They told him Hun Sen will reopen the school soon, after changing the name of the institute.

El Ma said Sos Kamri promised to find local funding for the school so it would not risk involvement with suspect organizations. “But I worry they will not have enough funds to support the students for their studies, accommodation and food,” he said.

“I need the school to reopen. [Cambodian Muslims] are innocent and never tied to terrorism,” said You Sos, the manager of the Misjid Alramani mosque.

He said that a class of nearly 100 students were set to graduate after an imminent final examination. He said Sos Kamri had appealed to the government to let those students to complete their studies, but authorities decided against it.

You Sos also said that since the school had been evacuated, supplies and equipment—including furniture, computers and telephones—have gone missing. “I don’t want to accuse someone of stealing the school equipment but on the day the students left, many police blocked off the institute and checked all of the students [and their belongings] before allowing them to depart.”

Police have guarded the school [since then] and don’t allow people to enter [the compound], so I want people to consider this,” he said.

Back across the street, the district police pinned the theft on the students.

Meanwhile in Thailand, a Bangkok Post article from Saturday cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Thai teachers’ arrests. Thai “authorities ran background checks and found the pair were clean,” the Post reported.

The article also quoted a cultural official saying Phnom Penh should not always be trusted as it discriminates against its Thai neighbors. It also said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had promised to raise the issue at Sunday’s joint Cabinet meeting in Siem Reap.

However, the Thai Embassy defense attache, Colonel Weerasak Lomwong, said the terror suspects were hardly mentioned and the evidence against them was not questioned at Sunday’s meeting.

Cambodian officials said Thursday that the arrests of the one Egyptian and two Thai Muslims were aided by US intelligence. US Embassy officials have not yet commented on the arrests, which preceded US Secretary of State Colin Powell scheduled visit by a few weeks.

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