BEIRUT, Lebanon--What can Arabs and Muslims see when they watch satellite TV in the Middle East?
Satellite dishes dot rooftops across Beirut.
--What can Arabs and Muslims see when they watch satellite TV in the Middle East?
The answer is too many pornographic channels.
For less that $200, North Africans and Middle Easterners can purchase satellite dishes and receivers giving them access to some 300 channels—channels which provide all kinds of uncensored programming.
"Muslim clerics, sheiks, point to these channels as evidence of Western Christianity. 'Is this what you want?' they ask. 'Do you want your children to take drugs?' This is Christianity," said Nadim Costa, country director for SAT-7, as he scrolled through channels, pointing out a seemingly endless number of erotic options.
Launched in 1995, SAT-7 is a Christian satellite TV network. It transmits programming mostly in Arabic and creates most of its programming in the Middle East for and by Middle Eastern Christians.
"SAT-7 offers an option in their own language, respecting their own traditions and culture," Costa said. "Our aim is to provide programming for all the family—youth, men and women."
The network's name combines an abbreviation for satellite—SAT—and the number seven which represents a perfect number in the biblical witness.
Costa talked at length in his office in East Beirut with EthicsDaily.com about SAT-7 and his own faith commitments.
His father was one of the early Baptists in Lebanon, who planted many churches, he said. "Many times he was stopped in the streets and beaten."
The Costa family today plays a prominent leadership role in Lebanon. One of Costa's older brothers is Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development. One of his cousins is Charles Costa, pastor of Ras Beirut Baptist Church.
Located next door of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, SAT-7's Beirut studio is in the same building with what is equivalent to the Lebanese Baptist Convention, the organization which his brother heads.
When Nadim Costa joined SAT-7, after working in the fields of export sales and insurance, the Beirut studio had a single camera and a staff of three.
Now it has 17 full-time staff members, six cameras and several different programming studios, as well as a mobile studio.
SAT-7 covers events in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, such as the commissioning service at Beirut's Badaro Baptist Church for Tony Peck, the newly elected general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.
After programs are produced in Beirut, they are shipped via FEDEX to London, where programs are uplinked to a satellite, which beams them 24/7 across Europe, North Africa, western Pakistan and many of the former Soviet republics.
The TV network's mission is "to provide the churches and Christians of the Middle East and North Africa an opportunity to witness to Jesus Christ through inspirational, informative, and educational television services," according to SAT-7's Web site.
The network avoids criticism of other religions, seeks unity with diversity, encourages peacemaking and human rights, refuses to promote any political party and handles carefully biblical prophecy. The network rejects coercive methods of evangelism and declines to sell programming time to Western churches.
"We want to approach people with something that is culturally and traditionally friendly—familiar faces, mother tongue, friendly environment," Costa said. "We want to avoid any accusation that we're trying to westernize the region."
He said, "If we portray the church on the American model, then it will look like we're trying to Americanize Christianity."
"We want to emphasize that the church started in this part of the world. It was never imported from the West. It's the other way around," he said. "It's a kind of positive attitude for non-Christians as they know that Christianity is a close to them as their language and neighbor."
New programs include an Arab soap opera, a situation comedy about a Palestinian Christian family and a magazine program addressing women's issues hosted by a Christian woman.
SAT-7's diverse programming corresponds to the diversity among its supporting partner organizations, all of which have a shared agreement with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 325 AD.
Costa stressed that "SAT-7's message is personal relationship with God that would lead to reconciliation and salvation regardless of denomination."
Among its corporate partners are four Baptists bodies—the International Ministries of American Baptist Churches, Baptist Missionary Society, Baptist General Conference and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board has not been involved with this satellite network, despite "some in-depth presentations for IMB leaders," said David Harder, SAT-7's communications manager.
Reid Trulson, the American Baptists' area director for Europe and the Middle East, told EthicsDaily.com that International Ministries entered a formal partnership with SAT-7 in 1997.
"We were attracted to SAT-7 because it is a Middle Eastern ministry in which indigenous Christians take initiative and make decisions regarding production and content," he said.
"TV has become the primary source of information, education and entertainment for a large portion of the region's population," Trulson said. "Satellite TV is seen as more credible than many other sources of information because it is not censored by local governments."
An estimated 38 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa has access to satellite television in their homes, according to SAT-7. In some countries, 90 percent of the households have satellite TV, as evidenced by the numerous roof tops in Beirut that are dotted with satellite dishes.
Costa noted that SAT-7's broadcast "footprint" covers 450 million people and that the network has no accurate statistics related to the size of its viewing audience.
"People are afraid to associate with a Christian network," he said. "But we know that people are watching. We estimate almost 7 million viewers."
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.