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Teachers employed by the Sino-Canadian program at Karamay Senior High School, which uses Nova Scotia’s curriculum and issues a provincial diploma, have contracts that rule out all religious activities, according to two copies reviewed by The Globe and Mail.Handout

A Canadian school program in China’s Xinjiang region has contractually barred teachers – and their family members – from religious observance of any kind, a requirement that lawyers say contravenes China’s own laws.

Teachers employed by the Sino-Canadian program at Karamay Senior High School, which uses Nova Scotia’s curriculum and issues a provincial diploma, have been issued contracts that rule out all religious activities, according to two copies reviewed by The Globe and Mail.

The proscription is among the most striking examples of accommodations made by such schools in China – including Xinjiang, a region where, Canada’s Parliament declared this week, the Chinese government has committed genocide against the country’s predominantly Muslim minorities.

According to English-language contracts viewed by The Globe, employees hired by the Karamay school must respect Chinese law. “This includes respecting Chinese conventions and not becoming involved in any illegal or religious activities,” the contracts stipulate.

One copy extends that prohibition to “partner, if applicable,” holding an employee responsible for the conduct of a romantic companion.

Roughly a quarter of the students in the Karamay Canadian program are Uyghurs, a group accused of harbouring religious extremism by authorities, who have razed mosques and placed people in indoctrination centres. Former detainees have said they were forced to recite: “There is no God. I don’t believe in God. I believe in the Communist Party.”

Nova Scotia’s Education Department says its responsibility is for content delivered in class in Karamay.

“The school is not run or operated by the Nova Scotia government. Our connection is through the curriculum only,” said spokesperson Violet MacLeod. A person who answered the phone at Karamay declined to answer questions and refused to transfer the call to someone who could respond before disconnecting the call.

In continuing to authorize the operations of the Karamay program, which opened in 2012, Nova Scotia has given its stamp of approval to a course of study in a region where education is a key component of what scholars call the government-backed “cultural assimilation” of ethnic minority groups.

Beijing has rejected the Canadian parliamentary “genocide” declaration as “the lie of the century,” and says its law protects religious and cultural expression.

Chinese authorities have said their intent is to root out extremism in Xinjiang, but local policies in recent years have smothered much religious observance. The government has banned outward expressions of religious adherence, including facial coverings for women and beards on younger men. It has used an expansive definition of extremism to flag a series of religious practices as suspicious, including reciting or studying the Koran without permission. Mosques in the region are closely monitored, with identity card scanners and cameras at most entrances, and attendance has waned. Mosques that once hosted thousands of the faithful for Friday prayers now stand mostly empty.

Even so, the Karamay Senior High School ban on religious observance for foreign staff conflicts with China’s own laws.

“In China, citizens enjoy the freedom of religion. You can’t deprive them of their fundamental rights with such a labour contract,” said Hu Yanlai, a labour dispute lawyer with Guantao Law Firm, in Shanghai. He has never before encountered such a clause in an employment contract.

“Simply asking people and spouses to not attend religious activities doesn’t make legal sense at all,” he said. “It amounts to depriving people of their constitutional rights.”

Chinese companies can bar employees from religious conduct at work, though, and critics say legal protections for employees are frequently ignored by the country’s justice system. But “asking employees to agree to not attend religious activities is neither legal nor usual,” said Ma Junzhe, a lawyer at Guangdong Tiansui Law Firm.

“I have hardly ever seen such a direct restriction on personal freedom, and the possibility of such contracts being valid is almost non-existent,” said Zong Anzhou, a lawyer at the Beijing Jinge Law Firm.

For Nova Scotia, meanwhile, the contracts raise questions about what the province considers acceptable at the schools it accredits.

“Why doesn’t this factor into their assessment of the school?” asked Joshua Rosenzweig, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East and South East Asia and the Pacific. “Would they certify a school in Halifax that hired teachers on the same basis?”

The Canadian program at Karamay is accredited by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. It uses a Nova Scotia curriculum and teachers with Nova Scotia credentials and issues Nova Scotia diplomas. The province conducts an annual inspection of schools accredited this way, 16 of them in China. A copy of an inspection report for the Abu Dhabi Grammar School viewed by The Globe shows an interest in teachers’ contracts, with inspectors verifying whether the “terms and conditions of employment for teachers are clearly defined in a written contract in English.” But the report makes no reference to the content of a contract.

The Karamay program has made other accommodations to meet local demands, particularly around instruction that might introduce ideas not authorized by the Communist Party. The program eliminated the teaching of sociology this year to avoid angering local authorities.

Ili Ibrahim, the school’s principal, has said he agrees with Chinese policies, including a ban on religion among young people. At the same time, the school has sought to foster in students an ability “to think freely and to express themselves freely,” he said in an earlier interview. That has included encouraging them to form a student council and getting students to vote.

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