SAT-7, a lifeline of faith for Christians in Muslim-majority countries

The ecumenical Christian broadcaster runs several channels, in three different languages, and reaches millions of people with its satellite transmissions.

Christians are a small minority in the Gulf kingdom of Oman and almost all of them are foreign workers. So, when Kurt Johansen, the executive director of Christian broadcaster SAT-7, told his hotel receptionist what he did for a living, he was sceptical at the reaction.

Kurt Johansen, Executive Director of SAT-7 Europe, Asia, and Pacific, during a visit to ACN's headquarters in Konigstein im Taunus (Germany) in January 2024.
Kurt Johansen, Executive Director of SAT-7 Europe, Asia, and Pacific, during a visit to ACN’s headquarters in Konigstein im Taunus (Germany) in January 2024.

“As soon as he heard me say I worked for SAT-7 he said: ‘Wow! I watch that every night’”, Kurt recalls, smiling.

“Before dedicating my life to Christ, I worked as a tax collector, so I am trained not to believe in anything. But as we kept talking, he started naming many of the programmes, and showed that he had watched them carefully, even though he was from a non-Christian background”, Kurt explains during a visit to the headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

This story reflects the situation in many Muslim-majority countries. Though there are ancient Christian communities in Arab countries, conversion from Islam to Christianity is frowned upon, at best, or explicitly forbidden, and sometimes punished by death. In most countries, those who come to believe in Christ have to live their faith in secret, often hiding it even from their family. For them, channels like SAT-7 are a lifeline, the only source of catechesis and reliable information about Christianity.

“We are contacted by over 100,000 people every year because they want to know more about Christianity, or just because they want somebody to pray with”, says Kurt Johansen. The SAT-7 website has a section dedicated to testimonies and messages received from viewers, from countries as isolated as Iran and Afghanistan.

The channel goes to great lengths to make sure none of its viewers are put in danger, and even those who work in the head offices are trained to detect infiltrators. “We know that some of the contacts we receive are actually from security services”, says Kurt to ACN.

“Satellite is where the poor people are”

SAT-7 operates four satellite channels: two in Arabic, one in Turkish and one in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran and in Afghanistan. As far as is possible, content is produced locally, but sometimes this cannot be done, as they do not receive permission. However, even the most repressive governments cannot block the satellite signal.

“In Iran it is forbidden to own a satellite dish, but the Iranian government has several satellite channels”, Kurt explains. This is because the Iranian regime knows that the vast majority of its citizens do, in fact, own satellite dishes, which they can buy for just 20 euro.

Father Anton Lässer (on the right) ACN International’s Ecclesiastical Assistant, was par of a delegation that visited the SAT 7 Turk studios in Istanbul in October 2023.
Father Anton Lässer (on the right) ACN International’s Ecclesiastical Assistant, was part of a delegation that visited the SAT 7 Turk studios in Istanbul in October 2023.

“Satellite TV is still king of media in many parts of the world, especially where the internet is poor, expensive, and often controlled by the Government. We are investing more in digital now, but we will probably never move away from satellite. That is where the poor people are”, the executive director explains to ACN.

“Our message is hope and life”

The option of being locally based, wherever possible, can present difficulties. “We have had to relocate some of our teams, for security issues”, Kurt says, but what he finds truly remarkable is the generosity of the communities that sustain them. “In one case, in Egypt, after a fire destroyed our studio, Christians came to our aid. Some sold rings and cars, to give us money, and in the end, we got more money from the Egyptian Christians than we had before. We overcome, and we go forward, and we don’t want to be seen as victims. Yes, we are a minority, but we have a role to play, and our message is hope and life.”

The Gospel is at the centre of SAT-7 broadcasts and its mission, but sometimes transmitting hope and life can come in unexpected formats. According to Kurt, around one in every three women in Egypt suffers from domestic violence or has experienced female genital mutilation. “In an honour and shame culture people cannot criticise their husbands, and so they may not realise that they are not alone in this, they blame themselves, and just hearing from others shows that this is a cultural, not an individual problem”, he explains.

At the height of the civil war in Syria, the organisation realised they had to help address the problem of a whole generation of children who were being deprived of attending normal classes. “We started a 24/7 academy channel where kids can study, learning to read and write, with classes in English and Mathematics, and how to manage life through a Christian perspective. Now we broadcast it on the SAT-7 Kids channel. This was intended for the Syrian refugee crisis, but now applies to other countries, where the middle classes cannot afford to send their children to school. During Covid-19, we were often the only school open for many families.”

Focusing on what unites

Another cause close to the heart of the broadcaster is the promotion of unity between Christians from different denominations and ethnicities. The international council of SAT-7 is chaired by a Coptic Orthodox archbishop, whose deputy is a Maronite Catholic archbishop, while Kurt himself is Lutheran. “We focus on what we have in common, on what unites us. We don’t hide our divisions, but we try to tear down the walls that could divide us. We have Greeks and Turks working together, we have Turks and Armenians working together. This is a good witness to the world”, says Kurt Johansen.

SAT-7 also realises the importance of reaching out to other religions. “We want to build bridges with Muslims. Christians have lived in these countries for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They want to continue to be equal citizens, to contribute to their societies and live in peace. They cannot do this if they live in isolation from their neighbours. We try to promote that.”

The organisation has no sources of revenue besides donations. ACN has been supporting the broadcaster for many years. “ACN has been very generous and is a privileged partner. We don’t consider them donors, but partners. This is not only about money, it is also about the spiritual and social impact”, says the executive director of SAT-7.

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.

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