The big interview
Over 20 years ago, Terry Ascott saw an opportunity to reach out to the Arab world with the gospel of Jesus Christ using satellite TV. But how do you design a schedule that’s going to speak to people of a different culture?
ET: What was SAT-7 like in the 90s?
TA: In the 1990s, satellite television was an important new opportunity to bypass government controls on the media, at a time when television had become the primary source of information and entertainment.
It was the first time that Christians could go into private homes to deliver the uncensored Christian message in the viewers’ own language. In May 1996, we launched our first weekly 2-hour broadcast.
ET: Is satellite still the most effective way to reach your audience?
TA: Much of the Internet connectivity in the Arab world still can’t sustain the download video material. Also, half of the Arab-speaking world of 320 million is not functionally literate and prefers TV for getting news and information.
Satellite TV is critical for people who would not otherwise have a voice in society and will remain so for the next 5-10 years. It’s a key way to encourage the regional church and give everyone an opportunity to hear the gospel in his or her own language.
ET: How difficult is it for Christians to share their faith in the Arab world?
TA: Arab countries are as different to one another as European countries. There is total intolerance of Christians in Saudi Arabia, with no official public or private places of worship for non-Muslims; you can still be publicly beheaded for converting from Islam.
Even in more open countries, there is a high degree of intolerance for anyone who departs from Islam. Under Islamic law, an apostate, after being given a chance to repent, should be killed. If the judiciary does not carry this out, the family often does.
However, spiritually, Muslims are more open to the Christian faith than most westerners. They believe in God and believe that Jesus is a special prophet, born of a virgin. They believe in sin, right and wrong. They believe in a judgement day and have great uncertainty about their eternal destiny.
The reason that many have not responded to the claims of Christ is that they have not heard a clear, culturally relevant presentation of Christian truth.
ET: What’s the biggest obstacle for Muslims to the Christian faith?
TA: Muslims have many misunderstandings about Christians, some going back to the Crusades, when so called ‘Christians’ from the West came and slaughtered any dark skinned person —Muslim, Christian or Jew. There are also Islamic teachings that claim Christians have got a corrupted Bible and worship three gods.
And, today, people watch programmes like Baywatch and Desperate Housewives and think this is a portrayal of normal western life, and they assume everyone in the West is a Christian. When a westerner talks about ‘freedom’ it sounds to a Middle Easterner like the freedom to behave in an anti-social or immoral way without any respect for religion or codes of ethics.
We have all these misunderstandings to deal with, before people will begin to listen, hear or understand anything that Christians have to say, especially if those Christians are associated with the West.
ET: Why is it important for you to make programmes for and by local people?
TA: We wanted to give a platform to local Christians to share their faith in a culturally and politically sensitive way. We also wanted to reinforce the truth that Christians were present in the Middle East long before the rise of Islam and are a legitimate part of society there.
Many western ministries would be willing to pay handsomely for airtime on our channel, but we decided from the very beginning that this would reinforce the negative idea that Christianity is a foreign import.
ET: How sustainable is your financial model?
TA: We’ve grown from two to now broadcasting over 600 hours a week, in three languages, over four different satellite channels.
It’s been a struggle and we’ve had a flat budget for the last four years. We’ve taken on extra projects at the expense of other things, including staff. In some countries, many people give money at the end of the financial year, so our cash flow from the summer to November is often difficult. It’s not sustainable as a purely commercial model.
We’ve discussed this several times and think that selling airtime to non-indigenous ministries would send the wrong signal.
We’ve established trust with 15 million or more viewers across the region: that includes 1.8 million Saudis and 4 million Iraqis watching the programming. The kids’ channel has a great following.
These figures are independently researched by independent, secular marketing companies that also research audiences for channels like Al Jazeera, NBC and VOA.
ET: Tell us more about your content.
TA: We have films, live current affairs programming, drama, teaching programmes, arts and crafts, Christian cartoons and other children’s programmes, to name but a few. We also have more holistic programmes, on nutrition, civil rights and possibilities for the disabled. As far as we know, we ran the first disability campaign on Arabic language TV.
We have a systematic theological training project called TEACH (Theological Education for Arab Christians at Home), aimed at taking a new believer through the basic tenets of the faith.
We recognised early on that, as people give their lives to Christ in places like Algeria or Iran, they don’t have a seminary, mature church or structure they can drop into. For many, the only source of Christian education is from the satellite.
So we’ve taken that issue seriously and are developing a full seminary-type curriculum with local seminaries for lay people who now find themselves in positions of leadership in house churches.
ET: What programmes break negative stereotypes?
TA: Anything that shows a nominal western Christian becoming a true believer in Christ. This helps our viewers understand that, although the West is founded on Christian values, not everything there is biblical or approved by Christian believers.
We made a four-part documentary about the plight of the Iraqi Christians. Our producer hired a local Sunni and Shiite camera crew to record stories of Christians who had been badly treated.
Both cameramen were in tears as one lady told her story. It helps the Muslim majority to see Christians as human and realise the injustices towards Christians in countries like Iraq.
ET: Did you foresee the Arab Spring?
TA: Perhaps we should have. I studied all the UNDP reports on Arab Human Development that were published between 2003-2009, and they all pointed to huge dis-content across the region.
We didn’t see it coming and I’m not sure if anyone could have anticipated exactly what happened.
ET: How do you manage political neutrality?
TA: We have live programmes about issues that will impact Christians. A leading presidential candidate on one show spoke positively about how he saw the future for Christians, encouraging them to stay and be a part of society.
Two extreme Muslims, who had been in prison, spoke about how they now saw that passive resistance and the democratic process were better ways to bring about change than violence.
We don’t endorse any one political party or ideology, but it does help if we clarify issues for our viewership. Bringing Christians into the discussion helps change perceptions about Christians and what their role in society is or should be.
ET: How are SAT-7 and other expressions of Christian faith in the Middle East perceived by the wider society?
TA: A lot of Christians were fearful after the revolution in Egypt because, for example, they didn’t know how they were going to end up or if the country would become Islamic. There was a breakdown in law and order. So Christians kept their heads down.
However, by September 2011, many Christians decided that it was time to take an active part in shaping the future of their country. They went into the public square to share their faith and pray for the country.
So, on 11 September 2011, up to 60, 000 Christians gathered in an open-air venue to pray and worship, from 6.00pm to 6.00am. It was called a Night of Repentance and Praise. Different denominations were represented in the audience and on the platform.
SAT-7 covered the whole event live. Many TV channels like Al Jazeera came to us, to ask for the live feed. It was quite a witness for other channels to take it to other audiences. It showed Christians as sincere, repentant and praying for their country and seeking the best for its leaders.
At the same time, the gospel was shared clearly from the platform in word, worship and song. On 31 December 2011 too, thousands gathered at Tahrir Square in song and prayer for the country.
We now have a Muslim brotherhood president and Islamist majority parliament. What the future holds for Christians in Egypt, we don’t know.