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.
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.
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 President Xi Jinping, who had been communist party chief of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007, was appointed General Secretary of the party.
But attempts to stem the rapid growth of believers has struggled in Wenzhou where churches, often funded by devout 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,” Zhao Gang, the minister at Wenzhou’s Church of the Rose-tinted Clouds, told Reuters.
Sunday School textbooks have been especially sensitive in the clampdown in Wenzhou, teachers said. The government restricts religious publications, and churches often use translated texts from overseas.
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 say religion cannot be used to hinder state education or to “coerce” children to believe.
Local governments in troubled areas of China, such as the far western region of Xinjiang, ban children attending religious events, but Christian communities elsewhere rarely face blanket restrictions.
This year, the party has been unusually strict in warning university students, state-owned enterprise employees and officials themselves against celebrating Christmas, with admonitions such as to “resist the corrosion of Western religious culture”, according to state 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 China’s cabinet, due to take effect in February, are necessary to meet China’s “pressing need” for patriotic religious leaders, Wang Zuoan, the head of China’s official State Administration of Religious Affairs, told Reuters 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.
But for many Christians allowing the party to control religious education is unacceptable, as it requires putting the party before God, according to Sarah Cook, a New York-based analyst at Freedom House, an advocacy group.
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 in China’s young.
“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.”
Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Stella Qiu; Editing by Lincoln Feast