LOCKED CHURCHES: What can we learn from the experience of persecuted Christians?

SAT-7 is a Christian satellite TV network that has been serving viewers in the Middle East and North Africa for almost 25 years. Many have never been able to attend a church: what can they teach us?

For UK Christians, the suspension of normal church life because of the coronavirus pandemic has come as a shock. This is also true across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where lockdowns and curfews are in place in various forms...

Video update on the coronavirus by Rita El-Moiunayer, International Chief Executive of SAT-7

Sat-7 TV Channel Logo“Today (22 March) was the first Sunday we shut the church in 40 years, despite all the wars our country has been through,” wrote one pastor in Beirut.

But an inability to attend church is nothing new for many MENA people and SAT-7 viewers. Others, although free to attend, face isolation in different ways in their societies, in the forms of discrimination, stigma and persecution.

SAT-7’s Arabic channels’ Programming Director George Makeen identifies two types of society which isolate Christian believers in the region.

The first are countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq that still have large, recognisable Christian minorities. Here, he says, “Years of persecution and hostility pushed Christians to hide behind their churches’ closed doors.” In doing so, he says, they left most of society to years of ignorance and “destructive misunderstandings” of Christian beliefs.

But he continues: “These Christians are in a better position compared to countries where Christianity is not recognised as part of society, even on a minority basis.” In North Africa, Yemen, Iran and the Gulf states, for example, everyone is expected to follow the majority faith. The churches that exist are open only to dwindling ethnic minorities or foreign nationals.

“It feels lonely for new believers in such countries,” Makeen says. “They are not only disconnected from their wider context, but they also don’t have the fellowship of a community of believers to support them.”

Makeen says that the arrival of SAT-7 was “revolutionary” for Christians in both kinds of society. Just as many UK churches are finding as they make services available online, “a window was opened for Christians to connect with their neighbours”.

Dr Andrea Zaki Stephanous on Sat-7 TV

Dr Andrea Zaki Stephanous, president of the Protestant Church in Egypt, was one of nearly 30 Arabic Christian leaders to broadcast special messages during the coronavirus crisis on SAT-7

 

Back from the margins

For MENA Christians, being able to broadcast their faith has enabled them to correct the false ideas and prejudices about them. Previously they were pushed to the margins, but through SAT-7’s holistic programming, MENA believers can share the Gospel, air heartfelt worship and prayer, show love and respect in the way they act and speak, and present a Christian vision for individuals, family and society.

For Christians in societies where they were not even recognised, Christian media demonstrated that they had not betrayed their people for an alien faith. Hearing the Bible and Christian faith expressed in their languages and dialects gave new and first-generation believers the knowledge that they could be Christians in their own society and that there are other national believers to connect with. SAT-7 also equipped these believers with teaching and worship programmes and helped them to start their own home churches and grow in faith and fellowship.

Today, after almost 25 years from the start of Christian satellite broadcasting by SAT-7, these new churches are producing new generations of believers and Christians are becoming more and more confident to proclaim their faith to others. Many, like the growing churches among the Kabyle (Berber) people in Algeria, are keen to use SAT-7 to reach beyond geographical borders to others who speak their dialect in neighbouring countries.

Since November 2017, Algeria has seen around a third of its Protestant churches closed, not because of coronavirus, but as part of a government clampdown. Nevertheless, SAT-7’s Algerian broadcasters continue to find believers eager to go on screen to praise God or share their testimonies. They have overcome fear and are courageous in their witness.

Amid the outbreak of the war in Syria or campaigns like this against the Church, Christian media has become the source of worship and Christian education for millions, Makeen says. So although the network has had to adapt staffing levels and practices to new restrictions during the pandemic, it was well prepared.

Sat-7 \

The director of SAT-7’s My School programmes explains how they are adapting and expanding the service with online tutorials

Sustaining faith

The dangers of the coronavirus, along with the emotional and practical challenges of isolation, are realities that both western and Middle Eastern citizens are having to come to terms with. But the experience of SAT-7 viewers shows the power of media to sustain and strengthen viewers’ faith in the hardest times.

“What would we do if we didn’t have Jesus Christ?” asked Lale from Iran, who follows SAT-7’s Persian-language channel. “We are watching so many people who are in pain, fear, anxiety and anger…  My husband is a street vendor and does not have work. But we are living in faith and we have never been left in need, and we are praying for everyone else.”

George Makeen comments: “Perhaps in the East we have developed endurance due to long experience of difficulties. We learned to be content even when there are troubles.”

He sees this as a challenge to cultures that expect everything to be available and problems quickly solved. In these situations, “When we are hit by troubles, it becomes easier to question or ignore God, as if He is there to serve us. I believe the Church in the East, and the culture in general, can inspire westerners to understand the meaning of submitting to God, to remember we love Him for no reason but as a response to who He is.”

He thinks this time of restrictions could also be a spur to greater gratitude among UK Christians. “For us, expressing our faith in the public sphere is something we long for. It is a precious experience that we have learned to work for and value. I pray that this situation will inspire Christians in the West to understand that to have churches open and the freedom to express one’s faith is not to be taken for granted and is so valuable.

“I read and follow some western believers who mourn over Christianity becoming a stranger in the West. I pray our model can inspire them to think again of how to re-introduce faith to their own people and culture, to think of today’s big questions, address the misconceptions, and see how faith can present answers to them. It is a difficult but interesting journey that I hope UK and western Christians can take with us.”

For more information on SAT-7’s work, visit www.sat7uk.org

 

 

CairoCairo’s vast Cave Church hosted tens of thousands of Chrfistians from all denominations at a night of prayer for the country, filmed by SAT-7, in November 2011.

Today, the Cave Church is deserted since public worship has been halted in Egypt.Cairo

 

Church leaders from across Turkey take part in new weekly show Answers of Hope on SAT-7’s Turkish language channel.

Answers of Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Video message by Dr Andrea Zaki Stephanous, president of the Protestant Church in Egypt:

 

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