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Proclaiming Christ via satellite

MISSION NEWS | Kaley Payne

Friday 26th April 2013

There might not be many Bibles in the Middle East, but one Christian organisation is making the most of what they have in abundance: satellite dishes.

Take Iran, for example, where satellite dishes are officially banned yet thousands of them still dot the rooftops. Kurt Johansen from SAT-7, a satellite television network offering Christian programming across the Middle East, says more than 300 million Middle Eastern people have access to satellite TV, an estimated 20 million of those in Iran itself.

Johansen is the head of European fundraising for SAT-7, and visited Australia earlier this year to raise the profile of the TV network’s operations. Originally a missionary to West Africa, Johansen recognised a need to proclaim Christ in the Middle East, and pushed the funds of his mission agency in that direction – where they found SAT-7 in its infancy and helped it grow.

SAT-7 broadcasts across the Middle East, from Casablanca in Morocco to Kabul, Afghanistan. On the whole, governments have accepted SAT-7 as a television network by Christians, for Christians. A physical SAT-7 presence is not welcome in Iran, but it’s difficult to control what beams into the country from elsewhere.

Of course, censoring satellite TV is possible, as those in Iran have experienced in the past few years. The Wall Street Journal reports that up to 60 per cent of Iranians watch satellite TV, making it more important than ever for the government to attempt to control programming, like jamming the signal of the BBC’s Persian-language channel which made headlines around the world in 2009.

Despite growing censorship, it is political programming – not Christian ones – being jammed from transmission. In its 2011 annual report, SAT-7 reports that despite the aggressive position of the Iranian government to block Western media and isolate the Iranian people with new firewalls and bandwidth restrictions, SAT-7 PARS (its Farsi satellite channel beaming into Iran), has seen a 110 per cent increase in viewer interaction.

“We don’t attack any religion or the governments of the Middle East – we’re not saying what we’re against. We’re here to present Christ; to represent the local church.

“We’re promoting love and forgiveness, not to overthrow the government or kill the president. So in that respect, in comparison to some other channels, we’re not seen as a danger or a priority.”

Johansen says SAT-7 is passionate about the need to broadcast local programming made by people of the Middle East, who understand the issues of the region, and what the population faces day to day. Eighty per cent of SAT-7 programs are produced by Middle Eastern Christians within the region.

“We are embedded in the culture,” he says. “We don’t have American evangelists on our screens, which is unusual. Many Christian TV stations make a lot of money selling airtime to someone in America – we don’t do that. We’re driven by the needs of the viewers.”

SAT-7 operates five channels reaching 22 Middle Eastern and North African countries (plus 48 more in Europe) on a budget of $14 million, a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of millions, often billions of dollars spent on more typical television network budgets. But Johansen says despite financial limitations, the network is expanding all the time.

SAT-7 is most popular in Iraq, with over 4.4 million viewers. Johansen attributes the popularity to how much Iraq has suffered – and still suffers. “Unemployment is very high, it’s dangerous to go out at night. There’s very little entertainment in villages,” he says.

The children’s channel is the most popular across the region, with programming considered ‘safe’ and ‘fun’ by many Muslim parents. It’s also some of the most inspiring programming to have a look at online, says Johansen, to get a taste of what SAT-7 is trying to do. With obvious emotion, he gives this example of one of the children’s programs that receives call-ins from kids across the Middle East.

“On one program, an eight-year-old boy, Mario, called in from Tanta in Egypt to pray for the crisis in Libya. I don’t think an adult could have prayed better for that situation,” says Johansen. Watch the segment here.

Another program popular with adult viewers is ‘Bridges’ on Friday nights, where moderate Muslim leaders are invited to join Christians in on-air conversations about current events in the Middle East.

“Moderate Muslim leaders very often form an alliance with Christians – they’re just as scared of the Muslim Brotherhood or other extreme Islamic groups. They say Christians are the only guarantee of pluralism in the Middle East, so they don’t want them to leave,” says Johansen.

“It’s good for the Muslim audience to see their leaders talking with SAT-7 about what’s happening in Syria, or what’s happening in Eygpt. We’re not a political station, but it’s impossible to pretend that nothing is happening. It’s an open discussion, providing food for thought.”

Johansen says local Christians appreciate SAT-7 and the sense of closeness it creates with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

“They are lonely, they feel discriminated against. They have little identity, they are second-class citizens. So for them to have this TV station is a huge encouragement. If you have a TV station to call your own, you must somehow be a recognised group.”

“We are there for local Christians, to encourage them; to train them. Many of them don’t have a pastor, don’t have a church to go to. They are easy targets to become Muslims – you get a better salary, a better life. But we can disciple them even from far away with TV; give them new hope and a sense of identity and belonging.”

With US evangelists increasingly moving into Middle Eastern TV, SAT-7 is certainly not the only Christian station available in the region. But they’re perhaps the station with the most language and denomination variety.

There is no greater example of this than SAT-7’s response to the killing of 26 Christians in a peaceful demonstration against lies about Christians on Egypt State TV in 2011.

“The response to violence like that in the Middle East is usually about retaliation – to restore honour,” said Johansen.

Instead, in their biggest ever live television event, Sat -7 encouraged Christians to attend a night of prayer in one of Egypt’s ‘Cave Churches’, a 12,000 seat ampitheatre cut into the limestone of the Muqattam Hills just outside Cairo.

The church was packed out, with thousands more flooding the streets outside. Up to 70,000 Egyptian Christians participated in the worship and prayers either in person, or in groups watching the SAT-7 live coverage. Secular TV stations including Al Jazeera and ON-TV, which played an essential role during the Egyptian revolution, also covered the event.

“We can spread the message of the Bible through satellite TV,” says Johansen. “We are a network run by Christians, but our programs are for everyone.

“We believe we’re showing unity through diversity. We want to be a witness of what Christ said – we should all be one.”

Image: Paul Keller_flickr

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