When authorities in China’s southeastern city of Wenzhou outlawed Sunday school earlier this year, Christian parents decided that their children must still learn about Jesus and the Bible.
Churches in Wenzhou started teaching children in private homes or at other venues, while some billed Sunday school classes as daycare, not education, or moved them to Saturdays, more than a dozen local Christians told reporters.
Wenzhou, sometimes known as “China’s Jerusalem” due to its sizable Christian community, is at the forefront of a growing standoff between China’s leadership and the country’s devout over religious education for children.
The ruling and officially atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased efforts to curb the influence of Christianity, tightening restrictions on faith classes and warning against the religion’s “Western” ideas.
However, Christians said the resolve of the community in Wenzhou suggests that the CCP will struggle to exert control over the next generation of the country’s 60 million Christians.
In her house, “faith comes first, grades come second,” said one parent surnamed Chen, who asked not to be identified by her full name due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Immaculately turned out in a cream fur coat and wearing a giant turquoise ring, Chen is one of Wenzhou’s numerous wealthy Christians who say their children must attend Bible classes because state education fails to provide sufficient moral and spiritual guidance.
“Drugs, porn, gambling and violence are serious problems among today’s youth, and video games are extremely seductive,” she said. “We cannot be by his side all the time, so only through faith can we make him understand [the right thing to do].”
In some districts of Wenzhou, which lies in Zhejiang Province, an official edict has prohibited Sunday schools since August, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu and Henan, and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia have barred children from religious activities including summer camp, Christian news Web site World Watch Monitor said in September.
Sources spoken to by reporters were unaware if the policy was a local government initiative or centrally mandated. They also did not know of any similar bans in other regions of China.
Also in September, new rules were released expanding state oversight of religious education nationwide in what officials said is an attempt to create a generation of religious leaders loyal to the CCP.
China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs and the foreign affairs office of the Wenzhou city government did not reply to faxed requests for comment.
Over the past four decades of economic prosperity, China’s faithful have multiplied rapidly. Official numbers showed that there are now about 30 million Christians, while independent estimates suggest that the number is about 60 million, most of whom are Protestants.
In Wenzhou, a small Christian community started by 19th-century missionaries, has bloomed to over 1 million Christians.
Until the past few years, they enjoyed a relatively relaxed relationship with local officials, residents said.
Then, in 2014, a government campaign to demolish “illegal” churches and tear down the crosses that adorned them sparked an outcry from the Christian community and sowed mistrust of authorities among believers.
The campaign came shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who was Zhejiang Communist Party secretary from 2002 to 2007, was appointed CCP general secretary.
However, attempts to stem the rapid growth of believers have hit obstacles in Wenzhou, where churches, often funded by local business owners, are ubiquitous.
“Wenzhou government does not let churches register, because there are way too many, so there are lots of house churches and it is tough for the government to manage them,” said Zhao Gang, the minister at Wenzhou’s Church of the Rose-tinted Clouds.
Sunday school textbooks have been an especially sensitive subject in the clampdown in Wenzhou, as the government restricts religious publications and churches often use translated texts from overseas, teachers said.
One teacher said classes resumed when they stopped using unsanctioned textbooks and avoided the words “Sunday school.”
Chinese law officially grants religious freedom for all, including children, but regulations on education and protection of minors also state that religion cannot be used to hinder national education or to “coerce” children to believe.
Local governments in troubled areas of China, such as the far western region of Xinjiang, ban children from attending religious events, but Christian communities elsewhere have rarely faced blanket restrictions.
This year, the CCP has been unusually strict in warning university students, state-owned enterprise employees and officials against celebrating Christmas, with admonitions such as to “resist the corrosion of Western religious culture,” according to official media reports.
While parents in Wenzhou want to control their children’s education, the government is working to create a new crop of religious leaders loyal to the party.
New rules governing religious schools from the Chinese government, due to take effect in February, are necessary to meet China’s “pressing need” for patriotic religious leaders, Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs Director Wang Zuoan (王作安) said in written comments in October.
“We hope that the talent graduating from religious schools will be up to standard in both their political and religious character, and will do a good job of combining love for the country with love for religion,” he said.
However, for many Christians, allowing the CCP to control religious education is unacceptable, as it requires putting the party before God, Freedom House analyst Sarah Cook said.
As such, the party can only do so much to control faith education.
“There are always going to be kids at home whose bedtimes stories are from the Bible,” Cook said.
For Chen in Wenzhou, faith should be at the forefront of education until believers outnumber atheists among China’s young people.
“There will definitely be more Christian believers in the next generation,” she said. “The ability for the Christian faith to be inherited and passed on is ever growing.
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