Chinese Christian kindergarten teacher imprisoned on suspicion of sharing faith with students

This photo taken on May 22, 2013 shows Chinese Catholics, who belong to an 'underground' church which is not recognized by the Chinese government, arriving to attend a mass in Donglu, Hebei Province.
This photo taken on May 22, 2013 shows Chinese Catholics, who belong to an "underground" church which is not recognized by the Chinese government, arriving to attend a mass in Donglu, Hebei Province. | AFP via Getty Images/MARK RALSTON

A Chinese Christian teacher who was once imprisoned for her faith said she was forced to flee China after Communist Party officials accused her of using a curriculum based on the Bible and sharing her faith with students.

On Monday, the Jubilee Campaign hosted a U.N. Human Rights Council webinar, titled "China Bans Faith for All Children," which focused on the testimonies of victims and survivors of China’s crackdown on religion.

Esther, a former kindergarten teacher in China, shared with attendees how she became a Christian after surviving a devastating car accident in 2007. She joined a church in Guangzhou that same year and later took a job at Woodland kindergarten, where she was surrounded by other Christians. 

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Though the school’s program was influenced by the Christian ideals of humility and joy, it was not a “Christian program,” Esther said. 

While working at the school, Esther also helped lead Christian summer camps for teens and adults. Around this time, an education department official summoned Esther and encouraged her to give up her faith to focus on her work as a kindergarten teacher.

“They asked me to stop my involvement with church and also asked me to not involve any university students in our outreach,” she said.

Though the next couple of years were relatively “peaceful,” Esther said she received phone calls from time to time from the education department urging her to stop planning religious camps for children and inquiring about the kindergarten. 

In 2014, Esther was again summoned by educational bureau authorities who interrogated her for 24 hours to find out whether she was teaching her students Christianity or using Christian materials. Authorities then raided her kindergarten classroom to search for religious or "illegal" materials. 

The interrogation finally ended at 11 p.m. and Esther asked if she could go home. 

“They said no,” she said. “I asked if I could have a lawyer, they say no.”

Esther was held overnight. “I was very cold and very hungry,” she said, and was transferred to a detention center the next morning. There, she was forced to work long hours and share a bed with 16 other women.

“I was questioned regularly,” she said. “I was asked over and over again, ‘Do you only have Christian materials at school? Is the current material based on the Bible? Who was involved in printing the material?’”

“It became clear that I was being unlawfully punished for two reasons: I am a Christian, and I taught kindergartener’s materials based on the Bible,” she said. 

In April 2015, Esther was charged with “operating an illegal business” and sentenced to two years in prison. But even after her release, Esther and her husband were constantly watched by government authorities. Afraid to cause problems for their friends and family, the couple moved around constantly. 

“We couldn't live anywhere in China and be safe,” she said. “We have to leave in order to escape persecution and find a place where we could practice our faith deeply and peacefully.”

In China, all youth younger than 18 are restricted from enjoying the right to practice their religion or belief and freedom of expression.

Following the implementation of the Regulations on Religious Affairs in 2018, provincial governments have banned minors from attending any religious-based activities or places of worship and questioned students about their faith at schools. 

Bob Fu, president of China Aid, told webinar attendees that China has launched a “war” against children’s faith. 

He noted that last year, hundreds of Christian schoolchildren in Zhejiang province were asked to fill out a form identifying their religious faith. After they disclosed their religious faith, children who identified as Christian were ordered to sign a document renouncing their faith. 

“After rounds of threats, pressure, intimidation and direct coercion by their teachers and public security officers, all but one student in that high school were forced to sign that paper,” he said.

“For the first time since the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao in the 1960s, Chinese children are forced to renounce their faith in public by the Chinese Communist Party,” Fu said. 

According to estimates, there are 3.5 million Christian children and teens in China, he said, yet they are “forbidden” to practice their faith. 

Fu emphasized that China’s continued crackdown on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion violates Article 18 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants.

“The international community should or must confront this,” he said. “This is a direct violation.”

The Jubilee Campaign added: "Through the experiences and recommendations of survivors, the event hopes to serve as a base to understand the widespread effects of China’s breaches to the Convention the Rights of the Child Article 14 and facilitate steps forward for member states and U.N. bodies to address the violations."

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