Beijing: A school in China has dropped optional Bible learning classes citing criticism that it amounted to preaching religion in schools.
Students of a middle school in Chongqing municipality have lost their option to learn Biblical sayings amid a public debate on whether the "literature class" they are in runs ran counter to education laws, the head of the school was quoted as saying by the state-run `China Daily`.
"Our intention was good in the first place, aiming to diversify students` knowledge and improve their characters by comparing Western and Eastern literatures", said Deng Xiaopeng, the vice-principal of the Affiliate Middle School of Southwest China Normal University.
"But some thought the course was preaching religion to our students, who are teenagers and have not made up their own minds about values and the spiritual world," he told the Daily.
Deng said the school was told to eliminate the class to avoid exerting an unsolicited religious influence on the students.
The move came in the backdrop of recent crackdown against Home Churches which were mushrooming all over the country.
Media reports said several people have been arrested for conducting public prayers.
A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) survey conducted in 2008 and 2009 estimated the number of Protestant Christians in China to be 23.05 million.
The survey found that nearly 70 percent of the believers worship in registered churches, with the other 30 percent practicing their faith in unregistered churches, the residences of friends or their own home called "Home Churches".
The school said it began offering 26 optional classes as part of a national reform of curriculum on subjects ranging from poetry to philosophy to logics and math.
The goal is to make better use of teachers` talents and knowledge.
A class on religious literature, containing spaces for 50 students, has proved particularly popular. So many students, in fact, have shown a desire in taking it that applications have had to be rejected, according to a report by Chongqing Morning Post.
Dai Yi, a student in the class, said he had believed the Bible to be an obscure book until he came into contact with it.
When thinking about it, his mind had conjured up an image of a priest praying in an old church far away in Europe.
Reading it, though, gave him an understanding of its metaphors and stories, which he found related to what was happening around him and helped to resolve confusions.
"What an enlightening book!" he told the newspaper.
Although the school`s offerings won praise online, netizens also criticised the course as being inappropriate. China`s Education Law stipulates that a separation must exist between education and religion.
"Why shouldn`t teenagers learn Chinese classics instead?" a netizen by the name Songxiang from Guangdong province posted on the information portal ifeng.com.
"Western interference will lower our national confidence and make us feel rootless."
Zhang Xinying, a former deputy director of the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said schools can teach the Bible if they treat it as a purely literary work.
"But education authorities and school administrators must manage the course and assess teachers to make sure the classes avoid preaching," he said.
Zhang said "a great number of cases" exist in which foreign teachers have tried to spread religious beliefs in courses ostensibly about languages and literature.
Ye Xiaowen, former head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told the Daily that experts are putting together teaching materials to be used in religion courses given to college students in China.
He said a textbook, the country`s first of its kind, is to be published early next year. With it, students will be able to study religion in a systematic way.