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Small screen — large mission

08 August 2014

SAT-7 is a Christian satellite-TV station making programmes primarily for the Middle East. The station aims to support Christians, but attracts a growing Muslim audience. Gerald Butt reports


Making waves: on the set of Bible Heroes, a programme on SAT-7 KIDS, an Arabic-speaking children's channel

Making waves: on the set of Bible Heroes, a programme on SAT-7 KIDS, an Arabic-speaking children's channel

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 SAT-7's vision.

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 sensitive way."

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 more.

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 Christianity".

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 baggage".

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, non-negotiable."

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 them.

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 about it."

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 societies.

"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 Iraq.


Gerald Butt is the Church Times's Middle East Correspondent.

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