A Westerner walked into a shop in Saudi Arabia. In his lapel was a tiny enamel badge. The Arab shopkeeper’s eyes widened. Making sure they were alone he confided in the Westerner. Scarcely containing his excitement, he said: “I am also a believer! And you are the first Christian I have met in many years.”
The badge the shopkeeper recognized was not a cross, nor a fish, nor some other secret sign. It was a symbol that has become commonplace in millions of households across the Middle East and North Africa. It was the logo of a satellite television channel – a Christian channel – with a mission to encourage struggling believers and to strengthen them in their life and witness.
“Some people fear there is no future for Christians in the Middle East,” says Rev. Safwat al-Baiady, head of the Protestant churches in Egypt. “Pessimists say that maybe 10 years from now, Christians in this part of the world will be extinguished, like a rare plant or animal. But the television station ‘SAT-7’ is helping Christians in this area to reaffirm their identity.”
Of the 430 million who live in the 21 Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer than 5 percent are Christians, and many of these do not profess or practice their faith. How to reverse this steep decline has worried church leaders throughout the region for decades.
“A physical disappearance of the church is a real possibility,” says the Rev. Habib Badr, an executive member of the Middle East Council of Churches.
“It would be a tremendous loss if, in the place of its birth, Christianity disappears. In certain places there is no visible church whatsoever. Whatever Christian witness and presence there is an underground.”
Little is reported about the rough treatment meted out to Christians by some of the nations upon which the West depends for oil. Among the worst offenders is Saudi Arabia.
“There have been imprisonments, beatings and deportations. You can still be publicly beheaded for apostasy against Islam and for witnessing to your faith,” says Terence Ascott, SAT-7’s CEO. “The Christians in the region are under attack. In countries like Iran there have been assassinations of church leaders and assaults on Christians.”
Other difficulties facing the church include growing illiteracy and a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. But God is at work. Many young people in the region believe the old ways have failed and are seeking new answers – and people who can’t read turn to TV.
Television, especially satellite programming, is unstoppable. Saudi Arabia has tried to ban the satellite dish, but rooftops are covered with them. Some 90,000 new dishes are installed each month and improving technology and reduced costs suggest the trend will continue.
SAT-7 began broadcasting in Arabic in 1996. Today several million viewers watch its daily programs each week. Output includes shows for children, young people and the family. SAT-7 screens cartoons, feature films and a series of Biblical dramas.
The Christian satellite channel even broadcasts a Christian drama made in Egypt, to the delight of a viewer from Syria who said: “Am I dreaming? Today I was surfing the channels and found a soap opera where Egyptians were quoting the Bible! Is there really a Christian channel I can watch? I cannot describe my happiness with this wonderful news.”
The standard for all SAT-7 broadcasts is to be high quality, inspirational and entertaining – an attractive alternative to local broadcasts and western channels. In recognition of that fact the channel won the prestigious International Ministry Award at the 2001 National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention in Dallas.
Many people have been exposed to negative propaganda about Christianity. Ascott regards satellite TV as a shop-window for the Church. “Most Arabic speakers have yet to hear anything positive about the Christian faith. Satellite TV empowers the church in its work and witness by providing a voice for it.”
But that voice, he believes, has to be culturally relevant and authentically Arab. “We are not a tele-evangelist channel,” he insists. “We don’t want to practice the McDonaldization of Christianity!”
SAT-7’s other U.S. partners, including the United Bible Society, are sympathetic to the need to keep the channel in tune with its audience. To that end Ascott has cultivated working relationships with all the major Christian traditions across the Middle East. The Board is controlled by Arab believers, and 60 percent of programs are produced in the region by Arab Christians.
It’s a fine balancing act, pulling together Copts, Catholics, Protestants and others and empowering them to produce quality programs – but it’s paying off.
The audience response is growing by up to 40 percent each year. One female university student from Egypt wrote: “There has never been such a project for Christians living in the Arab world. We feel you care.”
But it’s not only Christians who are watching. An Algerian viewer wrote: “I am one of thousands of Arabs who are sincerely appreciative of SAT-7. Before, I was living in darkness and caring for nothing. But after watching your programs, I confess that they have spoken to me; deep inside I have begun to understand and gain wisdom from your teaching.”
SAT-7 has set up 11 partner-supported telephone counseling centers in locations as far apart as Stockholm and Cairo. They have led people to Christ, helped believers get baptized and even averted suicide. The channel’s audience relation centers deal with the avalanche of responses.
Great care is taken to avoid offending the religious concerns of the Arabic-speaking world. SAT-7 does not attack or criticize any faith. Through sensitive broadcasting, SAT-7 hopes to increase the level of understanding and peace between the various communities, including Christianity and Islam.
“There is so much misunderstanding,” adds Ascott. “Every time an Arab sees a western program such as ‘Dallas’, it communicates that this is a normal western Christian lifestyle. But as Muslims, through SAT-7, come to understand that Christians teach forgiveness and tolerance, and that they worship a God of love, they discover a totally different concept of Christianity – it has a profound impact.”
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