BEIJING - 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 athwart of education laws, the head of the school said on Wednesday.
"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."
Deng said the school was told to eliminate the class to avoid exerting an unsolicited religious influence on the students.
As part of a national reform of curriculum, the school began offering 26 optional classes 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 criticized 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 going 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 China 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.