Representative photo. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered
Muhimman proudly writes his name slowly, carefully, one letter at a time, grinning broadly as he finishes. He's just 11 years old and was a good student who had dreams of being a doctor.
School frightens him now. Earlier this year, a cleric at the religious school he faithfully attended in the southern Punjab town of Pakpattan took him into a washroom and tried to rape him.
Muhimman's aunt, Shazia, who wanted only her first name used, said she believes the abuse of young children is endemic in Pakistan's religious schools. She said she has known the cleric, Moeed Shah since she was a little girl and describes him as a habitual abuser who used to ask little girls to pull up their shirts.
He has done wrong with boys and also with two or three girls, Shazia said, recalling one girl the cleric brutalized so badly he broke her back.
An investigation by The Associated Press found dozens of police reports, known here as First Information Reports, alleging sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics teaching in madrassas or religious schools throughout Pakistan, where many of the country's poorest study.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered.
They are typically started by a local cleric in a poor neighborhood, attracting students with a promise of a meal and free lodging. There is no central body of clerics that governs madrassas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy topped by the Vatican.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrassas more accountable, but there is little oversight.
Police say the problem of sexual abuse of children by clerics is pervasive and the scores of police reports they have received are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet despite the dozens of reports, none have resulted in the conviction of a cleric. Religious clerics are a powerful group in Pakistan and they close ranks when allegations of abuse are brought against one of them. They have been able to hide the widespread abuse by accusing victims of blasphemy or defamation of Islam.
Families in Pakistan are often coerced into "forgiving" clerics, said Deputy Police Superintendent Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the country's northwest, toward the border with Afghanistan.
Overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, families choose instead to drop the charges, he said. Most often, when a family forgives the cleric the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
"It is the hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear the long beard and take on the cloak of piety only to do these horrible acts behind closed doors, while openly they criticize those who are clean shaven, who are liberal and open minded," Baloch said. "In our society so many of these men, who say they are religious, are involved in these immoral activities."
Police officials say they have no idea how many children are abused by religious clerics in Pakistan. The officials said clerics often target young boys who have not yet reached puberty in part because of the restrictive nature of Pakistan's still mostly conservative society, where male interaction with girls and women is unacceptable. The clerics, for the most part, had access to and trust with boys, who are less likely to report a sexual assault.
Eight-year-old Yaous from Pakistan's remote northern Kohistan region is one of those boys.
Yaous is small for his eight years. His features are slight. In an interview with the AP, with his uncle interpreting, Yaous' tiny body shivered as he told of his ordeal.
"It was so cold. I didn't understand why he was taking my warm clothes off," Yaous said, his voice was barely a whisper.
As Yaous remembered what happened, he buried his head deeper into his jacket. The cleric grabbed a stick, he said. It was small, maybe about 12 inches. The first few sharp slaps stung.
"The pain made me scream and cry, but he wouldn't stop," Yaous said. The boy was held prisoner for two days, raped repeatedly until he was so sick the cleric feared he would die and took him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Dr. Faisal Manan Salarzai said Yaous screamed each time he tried to approach him. Yaous was so small and frail looking, Salarzai called him the "baby". "The baby was having a lot of bruises on his body" on his head, on his chest, on his legs, so many bruises on other parts of his body," Salarzai said.
Suspicious, Salarzai ordered Yaous moved to the isolation ward where he examined him, suspecting he had been sexually assaulted. The examination revealed brutal and repetitive assaults.
The cleric was arrested and is now in jail. Police have matched his DNA samples to those found on Yaous. But despite the arrest, fellow clerics and worshippers at the Madrassah-e-Taleem-ul-Quran mosque located in a remote region of northwest Pakistan dispute the charges. They say Shamsuddin is innocent, the victim of anti-Islamic elements in the country.
Yaous' father, Abdul Qayyum, said he was ashamed he had not spoken to his son in more than three months before the attack happened.
"I want this mullah hanged. Nothing else will do," Qayyum said.