Daily news about the Middle East is filled with violence and hate. Rarely does anyone hear stories of peace, love and joy coming out of the region. To some nine million people in the Middle East and Northern Africa, however, a Christian ministry using satellite television is delivering the Gospel message.
Terence Ascott, founder and CEO of SAT-7, and the Rev. Dr. Habib Badr, chairman of SAT-7 international board and senior pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Beirut, sat down after a Middle East consultation in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on last week to share about the state of the Gospel in the region.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
CP: Terry, where did you get the idea for SAT-7? Do you have any background in broadcast?
Ascott: No. I've been involved in Christian publishing since the 1970s and really did not think of television as being a serious medium for communicating the Gospel.
I guess the idea began in the 1980s with the realization that more and more people were becoming dependent on television for all their information needs and illiterate people would never be able to read literatures that I was involved in.
In fact, one study we did in the Middle East showed that the average person spent one second a year reading a book, which is pretty pathetic for a book publisher. I was involved in the production of a magazine but the figures for magazines were going down as more and more people gave up buying magazines and relied more on television for news and information. .
CP: Being English, why are you involved in the Middle East?
Ascott: I didn't know much about the Middle East when I first went there as a volunteer in 1973 for a six-month assignment with a Christian agency. I was back then a full-time civil engineer. Publishing was just a hobby. I didn't intend to stay in the Middle East, but once I got there I realized there was a lot of needs and opportunities that were quite unique and challenging. So I decided to stay another year and then another year and it just went on for 35 years.
CP: Dr. Badr, how is life in the Middle East now compared to when you were growing up? Has it become worse, better, the same?
Badr: By one standard it has gotten much worst, but by the same token it has gotten more exciting and interesting and worth-living, so to speak. As I was growing up in Beirut in the '60s and '70s, the Middle East's situations – politics, Christian-Muslim tension, Muslim-Muslim tensions, Arab tension – were all still subdued.
It was only until the late '60s, early '70s that the difficulties of being a Middle Eastern became more apparent for the average Christian.
One is because we were seen as being indirectly related to the supporters of Israel – because we are Christians and the West is Christians. Secondly, because Christians are associated with Western Christians and therefore secular culture and the negative impact that secular culture has. It became a challenge to be a Christian in the Middle East and be part of the consciousness of the Middle East and [at the same time] to be an international Christian that can talk to the world and not be isolated
CP: Where do you think all the problems in the Middle East stem from?
Badr: The difficulties in the Middle East lie in the fact that in its history, the Muslim world, as far as we know, does not separate between affairs secular and religious. For Islam – Sunni Islam in particular - there is no separation between religion and politics and so to be part of the social, political, and economic life in the Middle East means ultimately to be part of the religious life.
So it is difficult for them to find a way to co-exist on equal terms with non-Muslims. There is, even by the admission of Muslims themselves, not yet in the worldview of Islam an equal place for the non-Muslim. Therefore, Israel has no place in the Middle East and it is very difficult for a Muslim to remain a Muslim and accept the legitimate existence of a non-Islamic political identity whether Christian, Jewish or whatever.
That, in my opinion - and I would say that even to my Muslim friends - is a challenge to them and to us.
CP: What will it take to have peace, religious freedom and democracy in the region?
Ascott: The first thing is it needs is a lot of time. It won't happen overnight for sure. We forget how long democracy took in the western world. It was only in the last century that women got the right to vote in England and America. Universal suffrage is a relatively new concept.
The other mistake we make is that we think democracy is one man-one vote. But as we have seen in the Middle East, democracy of that nature often leads to a theocracy. So we have to understand all the elements that go into democracy which include free press, security, and independent judiciary so people have the freedom to speak openly without intimidation or imprisonment. You also need a strong army that will maintain the integrity of society but will not take it over. If any of these things are missing you can't have democracy. It's like a 3-legged stool; if one is missing it doesn't stand up.
But we don't seem to be talking about these other elements. We think because we have an election in Iraq, we have a democracy – but that is nonsense because if people are voting along ethnic line according to the instruction of their leader then what kind of democracy is that? Are they making informed choices? Do they have the freedom to disagree? Does the media portray the opinions of all people? Where are the Christians in this mix?
It's very complicated and you can't establish any of these quickly. The west is very impatient to give them democracy and get out and we don't realize that it is going to take 10-25 years in some of these countries to see the kind of change we want to see.
Badr: Democracy is not an end in itself. Democracy is a means to reach the end of rule of law, equality, freedom and human rights. As Terry was saying, it is not just the establishment of democracy that's important but what is important is to reach those goals.
We have to be creative and sometimes think outside of the box and take the nature of Islam into consideration. When we discuss, we should think are there possibilities of reaching these goals in ways other than the traditional western democratic ways that have been established over the last 300 years or inherited from the Greeks?
So maybe we shouldn't think of democracy as a cause in itself or a value in itself but as a virtue or a means towards achievement of an end. Let's talk about alternate ways of reaching that goal that would not be as destructive as the war in Iraq. The amount of bloodshed that is seen in Iraq is not worth the vote that was made two-three years ago…. There are factors in Iraq that need to be taken into consideration such as tribalism, Islam … that maybe could end up in a form of democratic government that is not modeled exactly on the western model but achieves the same purpose.
CP: Terry, you had mentioned earlier that house churches are growing in Iran? Do you know why it is growing?
Ascott: I have a theory that in all areas where Islam has shown an ugly face you tend to get rapid church growth. I base this on the experience of Algeria where 100,000 people died in the '90s in a conflict between fundamentalists and government forces including the massacre of children. A busload of children was stopped and their throats were slit in the streets and people turned away from Islam. It left a vacuum spiritually and perhaps that is why we are seeing an unprecedented house church growth amongst Muslim background people in Algeria.
In Sudan we've seen a lot of death and destruction but the church in southern Sudan today is the fastest growing in all of Africa without question. Iran is the same; you come from abuse from the Shah (monarchy) era to terrible abuse under [Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Mosavi] Khomeini and [Mohammad] Khatami and they seen the mullahs getting rich off the misery of the people. They've seen a lot of corruption all done in the name of Islam, a lot of oppression and restriction on freedom, and disappearances and killings of a lot of church leaders. Forty percent of the leadership of the Assembly of God leadership was killed through extrajudicial killings from 1989-1993.
CP: How can we share the Gospel in Afghanistan where it is said there is no church building even after decades of missionary works by some organizations?
Ascott: There are two things that returning Afghans take back to Afghanistan with them – one is a generator and the other is a satellite dish.
Some people working with Campus Crusade told me a story last year. They were driving through an area outside of Kabul somewhere and they got lost. They then saw a gas station in the distance and no one was there so they knocked on the window and they could see lights and people inside. They eventually went in and saw that the people were all sitting around glued to the TV screen watching SAT-7 and the Jesus Film in Farsi. It is a unique opportunity.
But no one really understands what is going on in Afghanistan. It is obviously a very complex situation. They are very hungry for information and news from the outside world, especially those Afghans who have gone out and come back in again.
Badr: It is difficult to tell what is going on in Afghanistan.
CP: Is there anything you want to add?
Ascott: Just a reminder that one cannot ignore the Middle East and that is obvious after 9/11. Do we as Christian recognize that we are the salt and light in the world? What is our contribution to the Middle East?
SAT-7 is one of the contributions. The work of the Bible Society and other ministries are other contributions. If there is ever a time to support Christian ministries and churches in the Middle East it is now because actually the future of the world depends on how things play out in the Middle East in the next decade.
Badr: If there is a third world war and if it hasn't started – I think it may have – it is going to come out in the Middle East. To prevent this you need all the forces of good and reconciliation that are available. SAT-7 among other things is so much better than other things that are being done like war and violence in the region.