THE past two decades have been torrid for Middle Eastern
Christians, even before the uprising and war in Syria, and the
current Islamist surge in Iraq. The steady flow of Christians out
of the region has been prompted by a range of pressures.
These include the increasing intolerance of groups such as the
Islamic State, and the unwillingness of many Muslims to accept that
Middle Eastern Christians identify with the region of their birth
rather than with the West.
Christians in the region have one important ally to help them to
overcome such challenges, in the form of a Christian satellite
television service, SAT-7. The station began transmitting two hours
a week from a rented studio in Beirut in May 1996.
Eighteen years later, SAT-7 broadcasts 800 hours a week for 15
million viewers in the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco
in the west to Afghanistan in the east. Crucially, the station
offers programmes made and presented by Arabs, Iranians, and Turks
exclusively in the languages of the viewers.
The key figure in the birth and expansion of SAT-7 is its
current CEO, Dr Terence Ascott. He is British, but has spent 42
years living and working in the Middle East. Dr Ascott is quietly
spoken and modest. He exhibits none of the traits of either a
tele-evangelist or a media mogul. But he does convey a calm
certainty about his calling, and a steely determination that SAT-7
should fulfil its mission to broadcast the gospel of Christ.
Dr Ascott's early upbringing hardly prepared him for a career in
Christian broadcasting. "I didn't know much about the Christian
faith," he says during our meeting in London. "My father was pretty
much an agnostic, although he behaved like an atheist."
It was during his teenage years that Dr Ascott discovered
Christianity, later moving into Christian publishing in Lebanon and
Egypt. This was an unexpected career move: he had originally
qualified as an engineer, specialising in bridge design and
construction. His choice of specialisation was, perhaps, an omen;
for bridges of the spiritual kind are central in Dr Ascott's and
HE IDENTIFIES two particular moments that spurred him on to
establish the station. During his publishing days in Cairo, in the
early 1980s, he "started to realise the importance of television,
in terms of half the country's being functionally illiterate, in
terms of its being a must-have appliance in the homes of even the
poorest of the poor". Here, he saw, was a chance to reach a bigger
audience than publishing ever could.
The second moment was the launch of the communications satellite
Arabsat, in 1986. "The idea of being able to broadcast across the
region grabbed me as being key," he said. "One could deal with
these misconceptions that Muslims have of Christians, directly, in
people's homes, and present the gospel in a culturally relevant and
Even SAT-7's financing reflects the desire of its backers (the
Middle East Council of Churches, among others) to eliminate Western
influence on programmes. It is normal for Christian TV channels to
generate income by selling air time to different sponsors, ending
up, in Dr Ascott's view, with "a lot of Western, talking-head
programmes that pay for the channel. We rejected that model, and
decided to buy our own air time, and have control of the schedule.
That was a very important distinction."
While locally hired employees receive wages, the international
staff are sponsored by missions or churches from around the world.
Funding comes from donations: about 60 per cent from the United
States, 15 per cent from Britain, 15 to 20 per cent from Europe,
andthe rest from Asia and the Middle East.
This financial independence and the reliance on broadcasters and
programme material from the region are important elements in
SAT-7's success, in the view of the executive director of the
station's Egyptian studio, Farid Samir. "We know the culture and
the context of the regions where we are broadcasting," he says.
"We broadcast in Egyptian dialect to Egyptians, Iraqi dialect to
Iraqis. We broadcast slogans to encourage Christians to stay in the
region, but we do it country by country: 'I am Egyptian, and will
stay in my country,' 'I am Lebanese . . .' and so on."
SAT-7's output, in its various language services, is a mixture
of discussions of the Bible and Christian topics and strong
audience participation, talk shows, live church services, and much
The station's children's channel is particularly popular,
attracting an incredible 1.8 million young viewers in Saudi Arabia
alone (where all Christian activity is banned), according to
independent figures checked by BBC audience-research experts.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, the interest of
non-Christians in SAT-7 has risen, Mr Samir says. Muslims are
curious to know why Egyptian and Iraqi Christians did not react
violently when their churches and other property were attacked.
"The Church was very active during the Egyptian revolution, but
without a political agenda," he says. "It did not attack other
religions, and Muslims were curious to know why we preached
forgiveness and inclusiveness when Christians were being attacked.
We offered something positive and hopeful amid all the chaos."
Encouraging contact between Christians and Muslims is one of
SAT-7's main declared tenets: "To foster bridges of understanding"
between different faiths, and present "the true image of Arab
Dr Ascott says that there are several negative issues associated
with Middle Eastern and North African Christians. For example,
Muslims watch TV programmes such as Baywatch, and assume
that these represent normal Western and Christian lifestyles.
Assumptions like this "pile on the negativity; and we won't go into
American support for Israel, and all the other political
BUT, by broadcasting the gospel to an overwhelmingly Muslim region
of the world, and seeking to present "the true imageof Arab
Christianity", was SAT-7 not seeking to proselytise?
"It is politically incorrect for us to say we are trying to
convert Muslims," was his reply. "The governments of those
countries that host us will accept us supporting the Church, even
broadcasting the gospel. But if we had a stated goal to convert
anybody, then it's the end of our operations there."
Dr Ascott did not pause before adding a qualification: "I
believe it's a human right for every individual in the world to
hear the gospel of Christ, clearly, in their own lan-guage, without
foreign, cultural baggage. He or she thereby is able to make an
informed personal choice on how they respond."
His determined streak surfacing briefly, he went on: "I think it
is a right that nobody can deny Christians. They may not agree
withit. They may not be happy with it. But it is, in my opinion,
Here lies a problem. A Muslim embracing the Christian faith is
in danger of his or her life - apostasy is a capital offence in
Islam. So does Dr Ascott feel guilty that SAT-7 could put viewers'
lives at risk?
"No, not really," he replies. "We are very clearly called to
present the gospel of Christ, and we realise it will bring
problems. But these are not created by us: they are created by
environments that are still in the previous century somewhere" - in
their treatment of women, for example, as well as on issues of
conversion and apostasy.
THE problems, when they arise, require delicate handling. Among
the listener messages received by SAT-7 was one from an 18-year-old
Iranian who said he was "a new Christian. I've just been expelled
from school because of Christ."
That young man called into SAT-7's Pars service, which
broadcasts in Farsi to Iran and Afghanistan from a small studio in
a business park in a remote district of west London.
As staff prepared the studio for the live evening programmes,
the office manager, Anita Hovsepian, told me that handling the
cases of Iranians professing to embrace Christianity "is one of the
difficult parts of the job. First, we talk to them to try to
establish if they are genuine or not.
"Then we have a further filter system in our network within the
country. They contact the person concerned - not at home, but in a
park or café, to make sure that they are not working for the
government." In 80 per cent of the cases, she says, the people are
genuine, and it is the task of the SAT-7 network to care for
Not all callers to the Pars studio want to discuss Christianity,
Ms Hovsepian says. "Some call for mentoring, mostly on family
problems, if a husband or wife has been unfaithful, or there's a
family drugs problem. They feel safe calling abroad and talking
Such a service represents another of the bridges that Dr Ascott
is keen to build. It is no surprise to learn that a leading SAT-7
weekly programme is called Bridges. In this programme,
Muslim leaders join discussions with the aim of achieving inclusive
"If there is no space in society for minorities," he says, "if
they are not going to be treated equally under the law, if there's
not a better attitude among the next generation, then there won't
be space in the Middle East for the Church."
SAT-7's mission is to avert such a catastrophe. The station
deserves support and appreciation for its efforts, not just from
Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, but also from
Christianity worldwide - especially at a time when the region is
experiencing such traumatic upheavals as those in Syria and
Gerald Butt is the Church Times's Middle East