by Andrew Boyd
It’s the birthplace of Christ and of the Church. Yet Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves. Sixty percent of believers have emigrated from the region since the 1950s.
It’s the birthplace of Christ and of the Church. Yet Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves. Sixty percent of believ-ers have emigrated from the region since the 1950s. Many who remain are cut off from any fellowship. And with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, growing numbers of Arab believers face increasing hostility. What can be done to stop the slide and strengthen what remains? I have been finding out about an initiative, backed by supporters in the US and elsewhere, to revive the struggling church in the lands where faith began.
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, or a fish, or 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 strengthen them in their life and witness.
“Some people fear there is no future for Christians in the Middle East,” says Rev. Dr. Safwat al-Baiady, Head of the Protestant Churches in Egypt. “Pessimists say that maybe ten years from now Christians in this part of the world will be extinguished, like a rare plant or animal. But SAT-7 is helping Christians in this area to reaffirm their identity.”
Of the 430 million who live in the twenty-one Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer than five percent are Christians, and many of these do not profess or practice their faith. How to reverse this steep decline has been worrying church leaders throughout the region for decades.
“A physical disappearance of the church is a real possibility,” says the Rev. Dr. 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 is 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 television.
Television, especially satellite programming, is unstoppable. Saudi Arabia tried to ban the satellite dish, but rooftops are covered with them. Some ninety thousand 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 each week watch its daily programs. Output includes cartoons, feature films and a series of biblical dramas.
The channel even broadcasts a Christian soap made in Egypt, to the delight of this viewer from Syria: “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?”
Many people in the Islamic world have been exposed to negative propaganda about Christianity. Ascott regards his satellite channel as a shop-window for the Church. “Most Arabic speakers have yet to hear anything positive about the Christian faith. Satellite television empowers the Church in its work and witness by providing a voice for it.”
But that voice, he believes, has to have an accent that is authentically Arab. “We are not a tele-evangelist channel,” he insists. “We don’t want to practice the MacDonaldization of Christianity.”
Great care is taken to avoid offending religious concerns. SAT-7 refuses to attack or criticize any faith. Instead it 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 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.”
SAT-7 aims to produce programs that are high quality, inspirational and entertaining. The obvious route would be to import ready-made shows from the US with high production values—but these can be culturally unacceptable.
The channel’s US partners, including the United Bible Society, are mindful of the need to keep in tune with the audience. So to ensure that programs have a genuine Arab flavor SAT-7 produces more than half its shows in Cairo and Beirut, and has trained many new broadcasters. Ascott has striven to cultivate working relationships with all the major Christian traditions across the Middle East and ensure that his Board is controlled by Arab believers.
It’s a fine balancing act, pulling together Copts, Catholics and Protestants and empowering them to produce programs, but the home-grown route seems to be paying off. Audience figures are rising by around forty percent each year and the channel won the prestigious International Ministry Award at the 2001 National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention in Dallas.
One female university student from Egypt wrote: “There has never been such a project for Christians living in the Arab world.” And it’s not only Christians who are watching. An Algerian viewer wrote:
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.
The program with the greatest impact for the gospel on any channel anywhere has been the Jesus film—the most watched movie of all time—utilized by Campus Crusade for Christ. Thousands have come to Christ through watching the film, which sticks closely to Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus was broadcast on SAT-7 such was the demand for copies of the book of the film—the Bible—that many Bible Society bookshops sold out. Over Easter the film was transmitted in eight different languages.
After watching Jesus no less than three times, one Moroccan woman said: “This is more than a film. This is what I have been looking for—truth.” An Algerian viewer wrote: You cannot know how deep was the impact of the Jesus film on my heart. That day my eyes were full of tears. I would like you to provide me with a lot more information about Christianity.
RIGHT TO THE HEART
Viewers like these want to know more about Christianity, and right now a unique new project is underway to use television to teach key Christian truths to millions across the Middle East. A major drama series is being produced in conjunction with theologians and Christian ministers in the Middle East and North Africa that gets right to the heart of the faith.
The first series of fifty-two deals with the misconceptions and misunderstandings about Christianity that are rife throughout the Islamic world. The second series explains the fundamentals of the faith and is designed to take viewers on towards Christian maturity.
For millions in the Middle East and North Africa cut off from direct contact with the Church, Project 104 may be the only way they can learn about the Christian belief.
There is only so much a television program can do, so follow-up has become a major operation. Partner-supported telephone counseling centers have been set up in eleven locations as far apart as Stockholm and Cairo. They have led people to Christ, helped believers get baptized and even averted suicide. “From Upper Egypt and many remote places people are sending us letters asking for Christian studies,” says Nadim Costa, SAT-7’s Country Director in Lebanon. “Viewers are expressing their hunger for the Word of God and are eager to know there are other Christians in their country.”
That eagerness has a simple but profound explanation, according to Rev. Dr. al-Baiady: “These programs help people find their identity. Many simple people who cannot read can follow the programs and they help them to know the Lord. The people are hungry for it.”
CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE
Given that fifty percent of the region’s population is under seventeen years old, it is no surprise that children’s programs top the channel’s ratings. The philosophy is simple says Costa, “Our most important viewers are children, because if they are happy with a program eventually the whole family will sit down and watch. You capture the children’s attention and you capture the family.”
And today’s young audience will be the mainstay of tomorrow’s churches across the Arab world.
Children’s shows range from animations like Super Book, Testament, and McGee and Me, to home-grown programs for the very young. But one cartoon series has a special resonance for many viewers. The Story Keepers depicts how the early church in Nero’s Rome kept the faith alive during a time of great hardship. Many SAT-7 viewers today face situations that are just as tough.
The channel’s most popular show is the home-grown As-Sanabel (Ears of Wheat), for children aged six and upwards. The As-Sanabel Club receives thousands of letters and calls from children and their mothers from more than fifty nations.
When presenter Rita Younes was first invited to host As-Sanabel she doubted her ability but as she was praying felt God say: “I just need one thing—I want you to love the children you are serving.” In her mind’s eye she saw an epic sweep of children right across the Middle East. “Now I have a love for these children I have never met before—and I am meeting them through these letters.”
Ascott believes it is a basic human right for children and their parents to have the opportunity to hear the gospel at least once in their own language. He says, “We have a God-given opportunity to make available Christian truth to millions of people who would otherwise never hear it.”
SAT-7 has ambitious plans to maintain that impact into the future. In its sights is the potential audience of 100 million-plus Arabic speakers with satellite television—a figure mushrooming by twenty percent annually.
North American Christians spend some three billion dollars a year on religious radio and television. Christian broadcasting to the Middle East attracts a good deal less than one-tenth of just one percent of those resources.
“We have found Christians in North America to be very responsive to the SAT-7 story,” says Ron Ensminger, executive director of SAT-7 North America. “But our small staff is only beginning to scratch the surface in our efforts to inform the North American Christian community.”
Andrew Boyd is a journalist, broad-caster and film-maker based in Britian. He is a specialist in international affairs and has written a number of books, including Voice for the Voiceless.
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