ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The accounts are disturbing: beatings, rape and imprisonment with shackles and leg irons. Abuse accusations from hundreds of children sent to study at Islamic schools are prompting growing calls from parents and rights groups for a full-scale investigation.
But officials have moved slowly and cautiously in looking into the charges of mistreatment in Koranic schools, or madrasas -- pointing to a paradox across much of the Muslim world: It's often easier to tackle Islamic militants than to confront the cultural taboo on publicly airing alleged sex crimes and challenging influential clerics.
Still, if Islamic institutions ever face a reckoning over sexual abuse -- such as the Roman Catholic upheavals in recent years -- it could begin in Pakistan, where institutions already face unprecedented scrutiny by anti-terrorism agents.
"We are forcing people to look this problem in the eye," said Zia Ahmed Awan, whose group Madadgaar, or Helper, compiles reports of sexual abuse of children in Pakistan. "It is not anti-Muslim. It is not anti-cleric. We are looking out for the most vulnerable in society."
Last year, a Pakistani official stunned his nation by officially disclosing more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys studying in madrasas. Children's rights advocates were elated, believing that their long-standing claims had been validated. They also hoped Pakistan's actions would open related inquiries in other Muslim nations -- similar to the domino effect through parishes after the Catholic abuse scandals broke in the 1980s.
But there's been little progress since.
There have been no significant arrests or prosecutions involving alleged sex abuse in madrasas. Also, the official who made the revelations -- Amir Liaquat Hussain, deputy minister for religious affairs -- refuses to discuss the issue after reported death threats and harsh criticism from Islamic leaders. He turned down repeated interview requests by Associated Press.
Every discussion about Pakistan's madrasas eventually goes in an uncomfortable direction for authorities: the potential problems of leaning too hard on Islamic schools.
The madrasas have ties to influential religious and political groups. Madrasa funding comes from government aid, Saudi donations and zakat, the traditional Islamic practice of giving alms.
The schools also serve as a social safety net in a nation with a galloping birthrate and about a third of its population in poverty.
Poor families often count on the nation's more than 10,000 madrasas to take one or more young sons to ease financial strains at home. The boys typically receive little more than Koranic studies for an education. But the big dividend for families is the housing, clothes and meals the boys receive. The schools, which have as many as 1 million students total, operate with almost no official oversight.
"The mullahs think they are above the law," said Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nongovernment agency. "We have to break this wall of silence."
An Interior Ministry official confirmed that police were investigating some allegations of sex abuse by madrasa instructors. He declined to give details or to be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Hanif Jalandhri, head of the Federation of Madrasas, the schools' main overseeing agency in Pakistan, acknowledged that abuses could occur, but disagreed that it was a widespread problem.
"I cannot rule out isolated incidents of sex abuse at madrasas, but I reject reports that hundreds of students are being subjected to sexual attacks at madrasas," he told AP. "It is wrong."
Pakistani rights groups are encouraging parents and children to speak out and document abuse. Dozens of allegations of abuse in madrasas are being compiled -- part of a wider campaign to draw attention to child abuse in a culture where domestic violence is common but rarely reaches the public's attention.
"The difference now is that no one can deny [abuse] is happening," said Manizeh Sano, executive director of Sahil, a group assisting child victims of sexual abuse. "The leaders of madrasas cannot turn their back on this problem anymore. That's a first step."
A madrasa teacher and two others are jailed awaiting trial in the port city of Karachi over an acid attack on a 14-year-old boy in 2002, allegedly after he refused to have sex with a cleric. The boy was blinded and badly disfigured. The suspects deny the charges.
In December, in another part of Karachi, Muhammad Askoroni's mother noticed a bite on the 10-year-old boy's neck. The child started crying and vomiting when asked what happened, said his mother, Dil Jauher. The boy says a cleric at his madrasa sodomized him after evening Koran classes, according to a complaint filed with police and the rights group Madadgaar.