• August 29, 2001
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    Halting the exdodus of Christian Arabs with Satellite TV
Halting the exdodus of Christian Arabs with Satellite TV MIDDLE EAST (ANS) -- It's the birthplace of Christ and of the Church. Yet Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves. 60 per cent of believers 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? Andrew Boyd has been finding out about a remarkable 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, 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 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 21 Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer than five per cent 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 an underground."


Persecution

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."


Gospel opportunity

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.

TV, 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.


Programs

Output includes shows for children, young people and the family. SAT-7 screens cartoons, feature films and a $117m series of Biblical dramas.

The Christian satellite channel even broadcasts a Christian drama 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? 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.


Jesus Film

Many thousands have come to Christ through watching the Jesus film, which was made by one of SAT-7's US partners - Campus Crusade for Christ - and 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. This Easter SAT-7 made multiple broadcasts of the Jesus film in eight different languages.

After watching the film 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

As you read this unique new project is underway to use television to teach key truths about the Christian faith to millions across the Middle East.

SAT-7 is putting together a series of TV programs that gets right to the heart of the faith. Produced in conjunction with theologians and Christian ministers in the Middle East and North Africa, the 52-part drama series - dubbed Project 104 - will take someone with little Christian understanding, whose worldview has been shaped by an Islamic environment, through to being a pillar of the church.

The program, which covers core Christian teachings, is broken down into two parts. The first series of 52 shows deals with the misconceptions and misunderstandings about Christianity that are rife throughout the region. 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 who are cut off from direct contact with the church Project 104 may be the only way they can learn about the Christian faith. Each program will cost less than $22,000 to produce and broadcast - with the budget coming in at under six million dollars for a series with a shelf life of at least five years.


Overcoming propaganda

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 MacDonaldisation of Christianity!"

SAT-7's other US 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 per cent 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 programs we can all be proud of - but it's paying off.
Enthusiastic audience

The audience response is growing by up to 40 per cent 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. "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." As one Kuwaiti viewer put it: "Why are your excellent programs only broadcast two hours a day? Please send me a Bible..."

That eagerness has a simple but profound explanation, according to Rev Dr Safwat al-Baiady: "SAT-7's 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'

Topping the channel's ratings are its children's programs. 50 per cent of the region's population is under 17. The philosophy is simple: "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," says Costa.

And today's young audience will be the mainstay of tomorrow's churches across the Arab world. The channel's children's shows range from animations like Super Book, Testament and McGee and Me, to homegrown programs for the very young.

SAT-7 has broadcast the cartoon series The Story Keepers depicting how the early church in Nero's Rome kept the faith alive during a time of great hardship. Many SAT-7 viewers today face similar situations.


Clowning around

The most popular show on SAT-7 is the homegrown As-Sanabel (Ears of Wheat), for children aged six and upwards. The program is presented by Rita Younes with a little help from Sanbool the clown. The As-Sanabel club receives thousands of letters and calls from children and their mothers from more than 50 nations. This 11-year-old boy from Egypt wrote: "I love Sanbool and Rita very much. Thanks to all those who make us happy through these special programs."

When Rita was first invited to present As-Sanabel she took it to the Lord in prayer. "He told me, 'I just need one thing - I want you to love the children you are serving.' Now I have a love for these children I have never met before - and I am meeting them through these letters."

Terence 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: "SAT-7 is a God-given opportunity to make available Christian truth to millions of people who would otherwise never hear it."


Misunderstandings

At the same time, great care is taken to avoid offending the religious concerns of the Arabic-speaking world. SAT-7 will never 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 Terence 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."


Ambitious plans

SAT-7 has ambitious plans to maintain that impact into the future. The channel has just taken up a 24-hour, 7-day per week lease of its Hot bird digital satellite channel. Its two hours of daily programming are being aired four times a day. The aim is to extend the service to three hours or more in Arabic and another language by 2003, augmented by regular Internet broadcasts.

The cost of making this dream a reality is less than you might imagine. SAT-7 reaches an ever-increasing audience of millions at an annual cost of just $1 per person per year. The potential audience is the 100 million-plus Arabic speakers with satellite TV - a figure mushrooming by 20 per cent annually.

But for the vision of round-the-clock Christian TV to become a reality, extra funding is urgently needed. While SAT-7 does receive local contributions, the channel will never aggressively solicit financial contributions from viewers, so outside support is essential.

North American Christians spend some $3 billion a year on religious radio and TV. But despite the vital role played by Christian broadcasting to the Middle East, this attracts a good deal less than one tenth of just one per cent 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. "When the compelling story of the mission and its success is related, we have whole churches who make a decision to support the ministry."

Ensminger explains that the ministry is mainly supported by donations from foundations and major donors: "Our small staff is only beginning to scratch the surface in our efforts to inform the North American Christian community," he says. SAT-7 is a registered 501 (c) (3) Christian charity and is funded solely by donation. If you would like to make a contribution or find out more, please contact SAT-7 North America, PO Box 113, Wayne, PA 19087-0113, USA. E-mail USA@sat7.org


Sidebar:

Ringing Endorsements

Senior church leaders across the spectrum of denominations in the Middle East and North Africa have given SAT-7 their enthusiastic backing:

"SAT-7 is an exciting opportunity to communicate the love of Christ to the Middle East and to build bridges of communication between churches of all denominations. This is an opportunity to encourage the body of Christ throughout the whole area." - Dr Bill Bright, Founder and Director, Campus Crusade for Christ.

"The Pontifical Council for Social Communications highly commends the aims of SAT-7... and warmly encourages support, both spiritual and material for this important project." - Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Vatican.

"This project is of great importance to the Arab world. It is a unique opportunity for Christians to share their life and faith with all the peoples of the Middle East." - His Grace Bishop Serapion, Coptic Orthodox Church, Southern California, USA, the former Bishop for Youth Affairs, Egypt.

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Andrew Boyd is a journalist, broadcaster and filmmaker based in Great Britain. He is a specialist in international affairs and has written a number of books, including Voice for the Voiceless, the biography of the anti-slavery campaigner Baroness Caroline Cox.

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