The aim of this article is to introduce and examine the work of Christian media, mainly the satellite television channels, in the Middle East. The reason for focussing only on the satellite channels is because the television channels are still the main players and have attracted more attention, especially since television programs have adapted multi-layered media platforms. As a result their audience can choose when and how to view their preferred programs.1 Therefore, in this paper, firstly, I will briefly describe the general understanding of the function of media technology in the Middle East. Secondly, the Arabic and Farsi Christian channels will be introduced together with their functions. Thirdly, the importance of Christian media will be discussed in three segments: Christian manifestation in the region; a voice for peace, hope and healing; an alternative belief system for the disillusioned and seekers. This section will also give a critique of the work of Christian channels. I will conclude that Christians, as well as the region, are in need of hearing the voice of Christ who speaks of hope, faith and love in order to bring peace into the devastated Middle East. It follows that Christian media have a great opportunity and responsibility to present voices of hope and courage, to restore the forgotten history of Christ within the cultures of the Middle East, and to disciple the seekers of the truth.
The arrival of Satellite channels, and later on the Internet, into the Middle East, was celebrated for their potential to bring political reforms and democracy into the region, and to overthrow dictatorial regimes (Fathi alAfifi 2012), and welcomed by the Arab regimes for publicising their political and ideological views locally and internationally. For that reason, most analyses and discussions on this subject outside of the region have focused on “democratisation and political reform” (Feldt 2006), and within the region on pan-Arabism and Islamic ideologies – mainly strengthening the regimes. Therefore, from the beginning, the use of media and the task assigned to them were narrowly defined and heavily linked to the political reformation of the Middle East. Some regimes, such as Iran, and also many radical religious leaders saw within the spread of media both danger and potential. Some even thought of the Islamisation of media and modernity, for example Motahheri (1979). In the process of the politicisation and Islamisation of media and modernity, the real audience changed to an imaginary audience who were supposed to passively yet wholeheartedly welcome the ideology of democratisation and political reform based on the Western context or to submit to the agenda of the authorities and radical religious leaders. Mohsenianrad 2008, 2010 calls this Audience phantasm. Feldt (2006) argues “the interest in the new media is from the very beginning politically charged and in many ways connected to American and European ambitions of political changes in the Middle East. Middle Eastern satellite television and internet became the hope and the sign of political changes to most observers, academics and journalists alike.” The 2009 Iranian uprising, the Green Movement, and the 2011 Arab Uprising have been boldly called “Twitter Revolutions” and “Facebook revolutions” (Kamalipour 2009; Passini 2012; Hermida, Lewis and Zamith 2014). After nearly three decades of media revolution not only did democracy not develop but the region is now more in turmoil and unrest than ever.
This simplistic approach to media in the Middle East has limited and simplified the scale of uprising and revolutions in the region and the density of the political cultures and histories of the Middle East, as well as underestimating the complex security and defence mechanism of the regimes and their vast religious and ideological network systems (Glaser 2006). It has also ignored the active and determined audiences and the multifaceted nature of media technology (Cottle 2011).
Satellite and Internet have been robustly deepening the political, cultural, social and religious struggles of both the Middle East regimes and their societies, at the same time, creating new opportunities, alternatives and creative empowerments (Cottle, in Feldt book, 2011). For that reason, it has become a difficult task, if not an impossible one, for Middle East governments to diminish or control the spread of the Internet and satellite channels (Pappe 2013). Heavy restrictions and domination have been practised by the majority of Middle East regimes, through frequent closing down of media organisations, persecution and imprisonment of journalists and individuals, and restrictions on online materials and access to new technological equipment. Each government has taken action, for example Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They have provided satellite space (ArabSat and NileSat) for three purposes: firstly, to control the flow of information; secondly, for their “national security”; and thirdly, for the “preservation of Arabness and Islamic values and cultures” (Feldt 2006). At the same time, many of the Arab regimes under control and restrictive guidelines have allowed the semi-privatisation of media. Iran, on the other hand, has kept heavy controls over all media platforms. They banned satellite channels, nationalised the Internet and have kept aggressive control over the print industry as well. However, despite Iran’s uncompromising control, one can argue that among all the Middle East regimes Iran is the least successful in controlling the spread of media among its population, especially the youth (Sadernia 2014).
Satellite and Internet have also created opportunities for minority groups in the Middle East to make their presence more visible and their voices heard, including promoting their religious ideologies. For example, Christians, from the early days of spreading media in the region, have taken advantage to reach out to their communities, promote their faith to Muslims, as well as offer to the wider society educational, inspirational and developmental programmes. However, in general, their work, in comparison to Islamic channels, has not been widespread. The Islamic channels – influenced by Christian televangelism and business model of media – in both production as well as the professional use of satellite channels and especially the Internet, with multi-million dollar investments, have contributed heavily to the rise of extremism in the Middle East and other Islamic propaganda. Their founders are more experienced entrepreneurs and media players with multimillion dollar budgets (Moll, 2010, Islamic Televangelism). In contrast, Christian channels have to operate with minimum resources, limited budgets, very tight security, and in some places under severe persecution, with limited media experience. Despite all these factors, the Middle East has witnessed the work of various satellite Christian television channels and numerous Internet based ministries and social media activities. As it would be difficult to list all of the television channels and Internet based ministries, my attempt will be only to list the major satellite television channels.2 At the moment there are over thirty Christian channels broadcasting into the Middle East and North Africa in Farsi and Arabic.3 The main four Farsi Channels are4:
SAT-7 PARS, although started as a separate ministry in 2002, since 2006 it has been part of SAT-7 Media ministry, operating mainly from Cyprus and the UK.5
Mohabat TV is launched in 2006 which, according to Dr. Mike Ansari, the Director of Operations, is a partnership of over 50 indigenous and non-indigenous ministries. It operates from the USA.6
Network Seven is funded by Iran Alive Ministries and is also Operating form USA.7
Nejat TV is the TBN Farsi channel, operating from the USA.8
Started in 1991, Tele Lumiere (Noursat), based in Lebanon, is the oldest Christian broadcaster in Arabic. In 2003 Noursat became global. Beside Noursat, Tele Lumiere runs ten other channels, five on different satellite platforms (Nour Al Shabab; Nour Al-Sharq; Nour Kids; Nour Al Koddass; Mariam channel) and another five channels are Internet or Radio based (Nour Al Kalima; Nour Music; Nour Spirit; Nour News; Noursat Jordan, a webTV channel to support Iraqi Christians. The Network is run by the assembly of Catholic patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon.9
The second oldest Christian broadcaster is SAT-7. Founded by Terence Ascott, it went on air in 1996. Beside SAT-7 PARS, SAT-7 owns other four channels; three of them are in Arabic with a vision to expand: SAT-7 Kids, SAT-7 Plus and SAT-7; the fifth channel is in Turkish, called SAT-7 Turk. SAT-7 is one of the leading and most influential religious broadcasters in the Middle East. Their programmes are watched by both Christians and Muslims alike. Having their headquarters in Cyprus, the majority of their programmes are produced in the region with studios in Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus as well as the UK.10
There are at least four Coptic channels operating from Egypt. Although all the channels are supporting the Church and Coptic Christians, unlike Tele Lumiere, they are not run directly by the church. The official and international Coptic channel is called CTV and has its headquarters in Cairo.11 The other channels are MEsat12; Aghapy channel founded by the Coptic Orthodox church of Alexandria13; CopticSat TV; and Logos TV14.
Al-Hayat TV15 was founded by Joyce Meyer Ministries and other link-minded ministries in 2003 from the USA with the aim of evangelising Arab Muslims. They are notorious for being aggressively critical of Islam. Father Zakaria Botros, an Egyptian born evangelist with his bold exposition of Islam, put the channel under the spotlight.
In 2010, Father Zakaria Botros left Al-Hayat channel and started his own, called Al Fady (Redeemer).16 This channel operates from America.
Elshaddai Television Network is based in the UK and Ethiopia. Although their main aim is to evangelise Ethiopians, they also broadcast in Arabic to Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and North Africa.17
Al-Karama TV is based in the USA. Their mission and vision is similar to SAT-7: to broadcast “culturally sensitive television programmes that will minister to the needs of the Arabic community in the U.S. and around the world.” 18
Another with a similar vision to SAT-7 is the Miracle channel19, based in the USA, and broadcast both on Nilesat and Hotbird.
Kingdom Sat20 was founded by Michael Youssef, an Egyptian born pastor and evangelist. Their headquarters is in the USA.
The Healing channel is a TBN Arabic version.
Alhorreya (Freedom) TV21 operates from America.
Aramaic Broadcasting Network22 was founded by Bassim and Haifa Gorial, an Iraqi born Syrian Christian couple. Their target audiences are Chaldean, Assyrian Christians, although they broadcast Arabic and Kurdish programs as well.
Al- Basharah is a new Arabic channel operating from the USA.
The Seventh-Day Adventist channel, Arabic version, Hope TV operates from the USA and Lebanon.23
Truthsat24 is another free Christian satellite television channel in Arabic from the USA.
From a quick look at the list, one can see three categories of Christian broadcasters. The first category is those whose focus is their own congregations and churches such as Catholic Tele Lumiere and the Coptic channels. The second type focus on “the needs of Arab communities, Muslims and Christians alike, including teaching and preaching the Scriptures. SAT-7, Miracle TV, Al-Karama and SAT-7 PARS are in this category. The third category are channels whose main aim is to evangelise and convert Muslims to Christianity, therefore their target audience are Muslims: Al-Hayat, Al-Fady and Nejat TV. Their programmes are mainly centred around comparative theology and polemics and are aggressive towards Islam. The first category produce most of their programmes locally, and with a denominational focus. The second category produce a significant percentage of their programmes within the region with a more ecumenical approach. The third category produce almost all their programmes outside of the region, mainly in North America. They too are denominationally driven.
Based on the above categories, one can see at the present time three functions for Christian channels in the region. The first is to serve Christian communities and churches, to take the church and its teachings into people’s homes, especially to Christians in remote areas who may not be able to attend a church, and those who, for security reasons do not go to church. The second function is to “spread the Good News” in the hope of conversion of Muslims to Christianity. This is one of the main aims, if not the only one, of almost all the Protestant and Evangelical channels. The third function that has not been utilised and explored fully, is to offer educational and inspirational programmes to all and to be a voice of freedom, justice, equality and peace for Christians and non-Christians alike. SAT-7 Arabic is one of the few channels that have a vision to do so, but they are still far behind.
The importance of Christian media
Christian media have many great opportunities including preaching the message of hope, faith and love; promoting forgiveness, peace and reconciliation in a devastated region; bringing Christian history to life, strengthening the Christian presence and promoting Christian contributions in the region; making Christian faith available to all and discipling the disillusioned and truth seekers. I attempt to explore the importance of Christian media as well as presenting a critical view of the channels under three sections: Christian manifestation in the region; a voice for peace, hope and forgiveness; presenting an alternative belief system.
Christian manifestation in the region
In 1954 a comedy film was produced in Egypt called “Hassan wa Morcus wa Cohen”. Hassan was a Muslim, Morcus was a Christian and Cohen was a Jew. All were able to work and live together despite their religious differences. In 2008 a new film was produced called “Hassan wa Morcus” because the Jewish community had almost disappeared from Egyptian society, so Cohen was deleted.25 Recently even some Muslims, both Egyptians and elsewhere in the region, raised their concerns over the shrinking of the Christian community so that there might be soon a film called ‘only Hassan’. There is also a growing fear worldwide that Christianity might soon have disappeared from its birthplace.26 The intensification of sectarian conflicts, the persecution and discrimination against Christians, civil wars, unrest and uncertainty in the region, migration and displacement have contributed to the decline of Christianity in the Middle East. Many have left and those who have stayed, as George Makeen, programming Director of SAT-7 Arabic channels in an interview with the author, says: “remain physically but not emotionally; the young people are full of passion, dreams and visions, but not for their community and society in the Middle East, for their dreamland is somewhere in the West.”27
Christian media can strengthen the place of ‘Morcus’ within Middle East societies through firstly, providing a platform, as George says, “for individual Christians to speak about their dreams and to reflect their diversity”. At the moment, politically and religiously, whenever governments or other authorities and groups wants to talk to Christians they go to the Church leaders; almost all the Christian television channels are in the hands of pastors and church leaders. The voices of individuals are invisible. Secondly, as George Makeen says: “if you want to protect them you need to present their history.” Christian media have great opportunities and platforms to reconstruct the Christian history, their collective memories, warm traditions and their silent customs, critically and objectively in connection with Middle East culture and heritage. This strengthens the roots of Christians in the Middle East. At the moment many Christians have disconnected themselves from their non-Christian societies and communities. As George Makeen says: “we think we have nothing to do with Arabs or we are victims. We see ourselves closer to the West than to our Arab neighbours.” The retelling of Christian history in connection to Middle East culture will also strengthen the relationship between Christians and their Muslim neighbours. It allows Muslims to hear the forgotten chapters of their history and heritage. In almost all the Middle East countries, the history of Christianity has been neglected, reduced to only a few pages in history texts books. In the light of history and their faith journeys in the Middle East, Christian media can also speak of human rights, religious freedom, women’s rights and people movements. That can pave the path to bringing peace, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, respect and tolerance back into the region.
A voice for peace, hope and healing
One of my favourite clips on SAT-7 Kids is Maryam’s interview. Maryam is a nine year old Iraqi Christian school girl, her house and school have been destroyed by Daesh and her family had to flee and live in a refugee camp. Essam, the SAT-7 Kids reporter, asked her “what are your feelings towards those who drove you out and destroyed your home and school?” Her response is overwhelming. The clip went viral in the Middle East and beyond; even Al Arabiya, a Saudi Owned news agency, featured it on their website28, and MTV broadcast it on their station. Arabiya wrote: “The Iraqi girl faces Daesh with love… and teaches the world a lesson of love, forgiveness and faith in God.”
To many, it seems that the Middle East has entered into a hopeless situation, intractable conflicts which means all political and religious parties have been resistant to a peaceful resolution “neither winning nor seeming willing to compromise to achieve peace” (Cohen-Chen 2015). The region has become a fertile ground for despair, loss of hope, anger and revenge. For peace to come, the region needs hope, because it is hope that promotes peace. The reason that Maryam’s short interview went viral was her whisper of hope and love. Hers is a voice that conceives a new path, a new way of thinking and new behaviours. Maryam’s story also challenges the mentality of the Middle East, and offers alternatives: forgiveness, love and inclusivism, “God loves everybody [even Daesh] … I will ask God to forgive them … they are in the hands of Satan.” Through this simple yet profound response Maryam offered a new way of thinking. Christian media should empower and project these voices of hope, faith and love that are already there and challenge people’s mentality.
An alternative belief system for the disillusioned and truth seekers
Reading some of the testimonies of those who converted to Christianity, one can observe that a significant number of them had been disillusioned by their former faith, Islam, way before they met Christ, because of what their ‘politicians and religious leaders have done in the name of Islam and religion.’ Many Arabs and Farsi speaking people are in fact in the process of de-conversion from their faith (Bahr 1983; Barbour 1994), and some dare to call themselves ‘atheists’, and others are in search of hope and truth. The Iranian atheist Facebook page29 has over 200,000 members with active discussions and updates. There are numerous websites, weblogs and social media sites on atheism in Farsi and Arabic that represent their communities and societies (Whitaker 2014). That might seem odd in a region that has witnessed the growth of religiosity over the last few decades. This new movement is partly a reactionary response to what is happening in the region now. However, atheism among Iranians and Arabs is not about the absence of God, it is rather about contradictions and irrationalities in religious teachings and scriptures as well as “demands for political and social change” (Whitaker, 2014). In this situation Christian channels can bring hope, reconcile them with God, provide them with a new definition of ‘self’ and ‘God’ and offer them an alternative belief system that can replace and restore their meaning making system (Ramadan 2010). The strength of Christian media, especially television channels, has been in this area, to reach disillusioned people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a message of hope and truth. However, the narrow approach to the proclamation of the Gospel – that is, quick conversion of a few individuals – has reduced the Christian faith to a commercial product (Einstein 2007) and converts into numbers that they can boost and raise funds.
A critical view
If Christian media continue to limit their mission only to converting Muslims and/or serving their church congregations, they may not harvest their potential effectiveness. To be effective and make a difference needs a wider vision that includes and involves all communities of the Middle Eastern societies, Muslims and other minority groups, with conversion being the end goal rather than the short-term goal. This approach also highlights two main misperceptions of many Christian media groups, especially Satellite channels. The first is related to media technology, that they assume media are just technological instruments for carrying their message without changing it. The second is that they assume their audience are passive recipients, following the classic method of communication: sender = message = receiver. Contemporary methods of communication are far more complex and multi-layered. Audiences are active participants as well as co-producers and reproducers of media texts who at the same time move freely between different media platforms, assimilating a variety of media practices (Horsfield 2015) and experimenting with several ideologies at the same time (Gooren 2010). Horsfield (2015, 6) explains that media create more “layered environments within a marketplace, with different media performing particular functions that integrate in a complementary but continually changing way with others.” Therefore the ready-made packaged responses from Christian channels to their audience’s complex situation may not be any more effective in changing their lives and belief systems.
As you have noticed above, there are many Christian channels with very limited diversity among them. Many of them, mainly the Protestant channels, look the same, preach the same and use same formats, genre and broadcast the same programs. In an interview30 with some of the viewers of Farsi Christian channels, many of them could not differentiate between the channels. To them all the channels are the same and run by one group, because most of the time they see the same programs which have been broadcast on all the channels, the same pastors and teachers everywhere, and almost all of them following the same formats.31 However, to maximise effectiveness, instead of spreading resources thinly, Christian channels may need to merge and create only a handful with high quality production and delivery. Therefore, they need to ask themselves a few questions such as what makes them unique to a degree that would justify their existence among many Christian media platforms. What do they deliver to their audience that other channels cannot? These are questions of identity, strategy and language32 that the length of this paper does not allow to be investigated.
In developing an effective strategy, it would be useful to remember that firstly, theologically and Biblically (John 3), we cannot promise salvation or conversion to anyone, since this is the Holy Spirit’s business. Secondly, as Einstine (2008, 21) reminds us, “you cannot create demand where it does not already exist”. That means the hunger for Christ and the truth is already there. As has been mentioned above, many people across the Middle East have been disillusioned by their inherited faith; therefore, for example, one cannot create demand for conversion to Christianity through an offensive approach to Islam. Many are already in the process of de-conversion from Islam, and some are in search of new religious and spiritual alternatives. With this in mind, Christian media can even justify their mission in the region by responding to criticism that the Christian message is there for the disillusioned ones, those who have already abandoned their faith in Islam.33 In conclusion, the Christian channels need to think more strategically, dynamically, inclusively with realistic goals and mission.
The Middle East is in turmoil, the region has denied hope, faith and love. Religious minorities as well as majority groups have been suffering in the hands of sectarian groups and caught in intractable conflicts. Christian churches have been burned and destroyed; Christians like other minorities have been kidnapped and killed; and many have been pushed into refugee camps. Many have left, those who have stayed have remained physically, not spiritually and emotionally. The violence in the name of religion has encouraged some to question their belief system, with many in the process of de-conversion. Yet abandoning one’s faith requires turning to something such as atheism or other spirituality and religious ideologies. Christian channels have provided the frustrated ones an alternative faith, a faith that has been part of the fabric of their cultures and communities for over 2000 years, although forgotten and silenced.
Therefore both the Middle East and Christian churches need the help of modern media much more than ever to broadcast the whispers of hope, faith and love and to promote forgiveness, healing and peace. However, the Christian media groups have not yet grasped their vital opportunities and responsibilities and have limited their vision to a generalised ideology of conversion and also the taking of the liturgy of the church into people’s homes. For that reason the channels have stayed mainly in the hands of pastors and are heavily male dominated. Although a few channels, such as SAT-7, have been trying to move beyond the generalisation of needs to find the voices of individuals, their dreams and hopes, their diversities and challenges; yet, they too have a long way to go.
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1 Social media and Internet activities are more complex and multi-layered and need a separate paper to focus on their work.
2 Since there has been a very quick turnover in this sphere. For example, by the time this article is published, some of them might have been closed and new ones arisen.
3 There are numerous WebTV and online broadcasting ministries; however, the scope of this paper does not allow us to consider them. Therefore my main focus has been on Christian satellite channels.
4 The Farsi Christian media deserve a separate article because of a different language and cultural audience and the increase of the number of conversions to Christianity through media and church plantings in comparison to the rest of the Middle East.
25 http://arabpoliticsofculture.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/egyptian-movies-hassan-morcos-without.html accessed on 12 June 2016
27 One should add to this that the situation of other minority groups such as Yazidis, in the region is, in many ways, worse than Christians.
30 The interviews conducted by the author for the purpose of her PhD study to examine the audiences’ interactions, interpretations and negotiations with religious media text into their contexts and worldviews.
31 Many pastors and teachers think if they appear in many channels, more audience will benefit from their programmes. But in fact, it is the opposite, if you do not have a defined identity, you will not be as effective as you desire.
32 By Language I mean constructions of reality. Christian media need to find and create their language, as Peter Horsfield explains, “language is more then just an agreed, functional arrangement of grammar and vocabulary by which people talk to each other; it is a crucial arena in which struggles for power take place over such things as whose reality is represented in language and whose isn’t”.
33 For example, many Iranian religious authorities such as Ayatollad Mesbah yazdi, Khorasani and Khaminei have spoken against the spread of Christianity in Iran and blamed Christian evangelicals and Christian media and ‘the West’ for it. To respond to these people one can say that it is not Christian evangelicalism or any other religious propaganda that has created the demand for new belief systems, but people’s disillusionment with their religious and political authorities, of course the help of the global market should not be ignored. The same authorities have also spoken against the spread of Bahaism, Sufism and other belief systems. For example, Ayatollah Khorasani of the ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance recently said: : “… the main responsibility of the Ministry of Culture is to safeguard the belief of the people, and you have three dangers; the danger of promoting Wahhabism, the risk of the Baha’i faith and the risk of spreading Christianity among Muslims.”