Medium and message
Radio broadcasting goes where publishers and evangelists fear to tread
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From the the parliamentary victory of Hamas to Baghdad violence over last month's bombed shrine in Samarra to the never-ending cartoon controversy over depictions of Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban-Islam, it appears, is "all the rage" in the Middle East. So it's surprising that those on the frontlines of Christian broadcasting in the Middle East tell this story: "I have no doubt that the hold of Islam on the Muslim people has crumbled. We shouldn't be deceived by the superficiality of the political scene." Those are the words of one Christian broadcaster in the Middle East, who spoke to WORLD and asked that his name not be used because, while he believes what he said, they are words that could cost him his ministry-or his life-in the present climate.
Radio and television broadcasts are penetrating oppressive walls and rules in the Middle East. Medium-wave and short-wave radio broadcasts are particularly instrumental because they have the ability to bounce signals off the earth's atmosphere, sending them miles and miles away.
With an estimated 97 percent of households in the region with radio access, Christian broadcasters are taking advantage of the waves. Using indigenous Christians to produce quality programs, broadcasters have the potential to reach almost every household in the 22 nations of the overwhelmingly Islamic Arab League.
The medium is most effective because, according to a study conducted by Radio Monte Carlo, literacy remains low in the region: Only 61 percent of the 340 million Arabic-speaking people in the Middle East can read and write. Only 44 percent regularly read books, magazines, and newspapers. At least 97 percent, however, have access to a radio.
Message broadcasts also circumvent the laws of most Arab League countries, which forbid proselytizing by non-Muslims. Converting to any faith but Islam is often punishable-in some countries by death. And while restrictions hold on the printing of religious literature and conducting of public religious ceremonies, the explosion of information technology is making it hard to control religious life. With violence and unrest plaguing many nations in the region, "a growing number of Muslims are disenchanted with Islam," according to the Christian broadcaster, and are ready to respond to a gospel message when they hear it.
Middle East native Nabila Brooks agrees. Raised in both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Ms. Brooks became a Christian after she married and moved to the United States. She currently lives in Washington and produces devotional tapes in Arabic that are broadcast across the Middle East through High Adventure Gospel Communication Ministries in Canada and Bible Voice of the U.K. and the U.S.-a cooperative effort that broadcasts from the island of Cyprus.
Her tapes primarily target Muslim women, but she also receives a large number of letters from men-particularly those in prison. Ms. Brooks says the letters she receives from listeners across the Middle East reveal a deep-seated longing: "You can tell they are crying to the real God, trying to connect." Ms. Brooks says she knows of many Muslims who have become Christians through radio programs, and although their conversions are typically not made public, they usually find fellowship with quiet groups of believers in otherwise restrictive Muslim-dominated countries. She receives many letters from Muslims acknowledging that "the words of your God comfort us," she said.
Ms. Brooks tries to meet personally with some of her listeners when she travels to the region. Trips to Saudi Arabia create opportunities to share with some of its leaders. She emphasizes the amount of hurt in the region, she said, and the comfort and peace many find in the message of the gospel.
Newer Christian radio stations, and those lacking staff experienced in living and working in the Islamic world, often aim to discredit Muhammad and the Quran, according to Victor Atallah, director of Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF). These broadcasts-often funded by U.S. charismatic and healing-oriented denominations-only incite anger among Muslims.
MERF, working together with Back to God Bible Hour and Words of Hope, is the largest Arabic broadcast ministry in the Middle East. The popular Arabic commercial station Radio Monte Carlo airs its broadcasts, and with two transmitters operating in southern France and Cyprus, MERF programming reaches an estimated audience of 4 million people and generates about 300 letters a month from new listeners. Many of the letters indicate that listeners are considering alternatives to Islam. Mr. Atallah says his desire is to create a contact point through radio ministry that challenges listeners in the Arab world to think beyond the borders of their own religion. "Our biggest challenge is to present Christ the way He is outside any cultural package-being able to make sense to Muslims without condemning or condoning their religion."
Middle East Reformed Fellowship tries to establish a point of contact, sending handwritten replies to the letters it receives. Many of those listeners are then referred to well-trained Christian Arab volunteers for discipleship through letters and-if safety permits-personal contact.
Evidence of changed lives is not always a secret, and some secular publications are noticing the influence of radio ministry in Arabic-speaking countries. A 2002 report in Middle East Quarterly attributed many conversions to Christianity in Algeria to Radio Monte Carlo's programming.
In one example, a study of Algerian Muslims claims that almost 40 percent of Algerians would not choose to be Muslim if given a choice. An estimated 2 million to 3 million Egyptian Muslims tune in to Radio Monte Carlo for hourly news and secular programs, and an estimated one-third of those listeners continue listening to the nightly gospel shows. Encouraged by the response to radio, Egypt's Coptic church launched Aghapy TV, the country's first television channel to broadcast purely Christian programming, in November 2005. Other radio programs are expanding: High Adventure Ministries and Bible Voice air more than 80 hours of programming in 15 languages each week.
"We have to be careful not to condemn Muhammad but also not to condone him," said Mr. Atallah. "We don't give the answers too quickly. We try to get them to the point where there is no hope, then we address how God deals with it."
MERF's director acknowledges that these changed lives are costly from a personal standpoint, requiring patience, emotions, time and prayers, but emphasizes the need for believers to notice the hand of God at work in the Middle East: "Our concern as a whole is that Christians do not lose sight of the kingdom work by events taking place."
"The only way to change these people is through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The Islamic world still wants to bring the United States and Israel to its knees," said Ms. Brooks. And that, in turn, is what Ms. Brooks wants to see happen in the Arab world.
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