By Christian Shepherd and Stella Qiu
WENZHOU, China (Reuters)
When authorities in China‘s southeastern city of Wenzhou outlawed Sunday School earlier this year, Christian parents determined their children must still learn about Jesus and the Bible
Churches in Wenzhou started teaching children in private homes or at other venues. Some billed Sunday School classes as daycare, not education, or moved them to Saturdays, more than a dozen local Christians told Reuters.
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 Communist Party has increased efforts to curb the influence of Christianity, tightening restrictions on faith classes and warning against the religion’s “Western” ideas.
But Christians say the resolve of the community in Wenzhou suggests the party 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, asking not to use 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 told Reuters. “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, in Zhejiang province, an official edict has prohibited Sunday Schools since August, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter
The provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu, Henan and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia have barred children from faith activities including summer camp, Christian news site World Watch Monitor reported in September.
Sources spoken to by Reuters 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 say is an attempt to create a new generation of religious leaders loyal to the party.
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.
EXPLOSION OF BELIEF
In the last four decades of economic prosperity, China’s faithful have multiplied rapidly. Official numbers say there are now around 30 million Christians, while independent estimates suggest 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 one million Christians. Until recent years, they had enjoyed a relatively relaxed relationship with local officials, residents said.
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