Sunday schools

In “China’s Jerusalem” Christians Say Faith Trumps Official Sunday School Ban

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WENZHOU, China (Reuters) – When authorities in southeast China’s Wenzhou city banned Sunday school earlier this year, Christian parents determined their children still needed to learn more about Jesus and the Bible.

A room that housed Sunday school classes is pictured at a church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China on December 18, 2017. REUTERS / Christian Shepherd

Churches in Wenzhou have started teaching children in private homes or other places. Some have billed Sunday school classes as child care and not education, or moved them to Saturdays, more than a dozen local Christians told Reuters.

Wenzhou, sometimes known as the “Jerusalem of China” because of its large Christian community, is at the forefront of a growing standoff between Chinese leaders and the country’s devotees over religious education for children. .

The ruling and officially atheist Communist Party has stepped up its efforts to reduce the influence of Christianity, tightening restrictions on denominational classes and warning against “Western” ideas of religion.

But Christians say the resolve of the community in Wenzhou suggests the party will struggle to exercise control over the next generation of the country’s 60 million Christians.

In his house, “faith comes first, grades come second,” said a relative named Chen, asking not to use his full name because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Dressed in a cream fur coat and wearing a giant turquoise ring, Chen is one of many wealthy Christians in Wenzhou who say their children need to take Bible lessons because public education does not provide them with enough moral guidance. and spiritual.

“Drugs, pornography, gambling and violence are serious problems for young people today and video games are extremely attractive,” she told Reuters. “We can’t be by his side all the time, so only by faith can we make him understand (the right thing to do).”

In parts of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, an official edict has banned Sunday schools since August, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu, Henan and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region provinces have banned children from accessing religious activities, including summer camps, Christian news site World Watch reported. Monitor in September.

Sources interviewed by Reuters were unsure whether the policy was a local government initiative or whether it was centrally mandated. They were also unaware of similar bans in other parts of China.

Also in September, new rules were released expanding state oversight over religious education nationwide, which officials say is an attempt to create a new generation of religious leaders loyal to the party. .

The Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Wenzhou City Government’s Foreign Office did not respond to requests for comment sent by fax.

EXPLOSION OF BELIEF

Over the past four decades of economic prosperity, Chinese worshipers have multiplied rapidly. Official figures indicate that there are now around 30 million Christians, while independent estimates suggest the number is around 60 million, most of whom are Protestants.

In Wenzhou, a small Christian community founded by 19th century missionaries has flourished and numbers over a million Christians. Until recent years, they had enjoyed relatively relaxed relations with local authorities, residents said.

Then, in 2014, a government campaign to demolish “illegal” churches and bring down the crosses that adorned them sparked an outcry from the Christian community and sowed distrust of the authorities among believers.

The campaign came shortly after President Xi Jinping, who had been leader of the Zhejiang Communist Party from 2002 to 2007, was appointed the party’s general secretary.

But attempts to stem the rapid growth of believers have struggled in Wenzhou where churches, often funded by staunch local business owners, are ubiquitous.

“The Wenzhou government does not allow churches to register because there are too many, so there are a lot of house churches and it is difficult for the government to run them,” Zhao Gang said, minister of Wenzhou Pink Clouds Church. told Reuters.

Sunday school textbooks have been particularly sensitive to the crackdown in Wenzhou, teachers said. The government restricts religious publications, and churches often use texts translated from abroad.

A teacher said classes resumed when they stopped using unauthorized textbooks and avoided the words “Sunday School”.

FREEDOM FOR ALL

Chinese law formally grants religious freedom to everyone, including children, but education and protection regulations for minors also state that religion cannot be used to obstruct public education or to “coerce” children. children to believe.

Local governments in troubled areas of China, such as the far western region of Xinjiang, prohibit children from attending religious events, but Christian communities elsewhere rarely face general restrictions.

This year, the party has been exceptionally strict in warning university students, employees of state-owned enterprises and public officials themselves against the celebration of Christmas, with warnings such as “resist the corrosion of Western religious culture.” , according to state media.

As parents in Wenzhou want to control their children’s education, the government is working to create a new generation of religious leaders loyal to the party.

New rules governing Chinese cabinet religious schools, due to come into effect in February, are needed to meet China’s “urgent need” for patriotic religious leaders, administration chief Wang Zuoan told Reuters. Official State of Religious Affairs of China. October.

“We hope that the talents graduating from religious schools will live up to their political and religious character and do a good job of combining love for the country with love for religion,” he said.

But for many Christians, allowing the party to control religious education is unacceptable because it requires putting the party before God, according to Sarah Cook, a New York-based analyst at Freedom House, an advocacy group.

As such, there is little the party can do to control religious education.

“There will always be children at home whose bedtime stories are taken from the Bible,” Cook said.

For Chen in Wenzhou, faith should be at the forefront of education until believers outnumber atheists among Chinese youth.

“There will definitely be more Christian believers in the next generation,” she said. “The capacity of the Christian faith to be inherited and transmitted continues to grow. “

Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Stella Qiu; Editing by Lincoln Feast

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