Walking along the dusty streets of Cairo, Terence Ascott had an epiphany. Having served in literature ministry in the Middle East and around the world, the British missionary grew somber as he passed by the local bawab (gatekeeper), his wife, and three children.
“How can such an illiterate family ever be exposed to the Christian faith,” Ascott mused.
Hired to guard a construction site, the Egyptians sat huddled under a makeshift tent with only the most rudimentary of kitchen items—and a television that transfixed them and left Ascott unnoticed as he lingered.
Last year, satellite TV ministry SAT-7 celebrated its 25th anniversary. Broadcasting in Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi, the embodiment of Ascott’s epiphany now communicates the gospel across 25 nations in the Middle East and North Africa, home to 400 million people.
Having transitioned SAT-7 to local leadership but continuing to serve as a member of its international council, Ascott turned back to literature to reflect on four decades of ministry.
Below is an excerpt from Dare to Believe, a collection of Ascott’s anecdotes of faith from ordinary believers, telling the story of his journey—through civil wars, arrests, and deportation—to establish an evangelistic ministry embraced today by nearly every Christian denomination in the region.
Tertullian, the early North African Christian writer, observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” When one considers the dozens of murdered Christian workers in Algeria over the past decades, it is not surprising to know that it hosts the fastest-growing church in the Arab world today.
The Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) was officially recognized by the government of Algeria in 1974. While the exact number of its members has never been clear, estimates in 2011 were in the range of 60,000 to 120,000.
Almost all of the membership was not from a Christian tradition, with many of the 50 or so registered churches being in the Berber, Kabyle-speaking regions of the country. Though these believers had faced waves of persecution and church closures, their numbers continued to grow.
The violence Islamists have committed against Algerian civilians also appears to have been a factor in turning many to Christ. This was graphically illustrated by a drawing a young Algerian girl sent to our children’s program, AsSanabel.
It pictured Jesus on the cross, holding an Algerian flag in each hand. To Christ’s left was pictured something that no child should be thinking about: a bearded Islamist cutting the throat of this young artist with a sword. Over this gory part of the picture was a big X, rejecting the behavior.
To Christ’s right was a happy child holding a cross in one hand and declaring their freedom. And at the bottom of the picture she had written, “They are killing the children, but Jesus was killed for the children.”
Rita El Mounayer, who was by then the executive director for SAT-7’s Arabic channels (and still the presenter and producer of AsSanabel), and I flew into Oran on July 25, 2011. It was a long-postponed trip to strengthen SAT-7’s ties with the church and local producers there. Security was tight but friendly. Several of the immigration staff in the airport recognized Rita from her regular programs on SAT-7. This perhaps delayed things a bit, as they seemed anxious over the possibility of us filming in their country. We assured them we would not.
Our first impressions of the city were not that great. For the second largest city in Africa’s geographically biggest country, with one of the world’s greatest reserves of natural gas, their investment in public services and infrastructure seemed underwhelming. Many of the streets were unpaved, littered with rubbish. And we could find stores selling only the most basic range of local produce. Unemployment was high. Many of the apartment buildings seemed poorly maintained and had no elevators or air-conditioning, despite the stifling summer heat.
But they all had satellite dishes!
Our Algerian hosts welcomed us warmly. They clearly had a heart for ministry and for sharing their faith with others in North Africa through SAT-7’s broadcasts, especially at a time when half-a-dozen churches in the country had recently been given orders to close. These brothers and sisters had already been recording simple church services and other programs but were obviously in need of both better and more equipment, as well as some advanced training in television production.
Rita questioned if the believers at the church services being recorded minded that their faces would be shown on television, especially given the growing problems for such churches at that time. Youssef, the ministry leader, explained that when they discussed this issue in church, instead of people moving to the back and away from the cameras, many moved to the front to let their faces be seen more clearly!
Rita then asked Samia, both a presenter and a producer of several shows, “Is it not dangerous to show your face on screen?”
“Rita, what are you afraid of?” Samia asked.
“I am not afraid for myself or for SAT-7,” replied Rita, “but for your sake.”
“Afraid for me?” Samia said. “Persecution is actually a crown that we put on our heads each and every day before going out into the world. Don’t take this away from us!”
These are the Christians of North Africa.
Today we are seeing in the region a turning away from religion, due to several factors.
First, religious extremism. Many have been appalled by Muslims killing other Muslims in the name of their common God. The rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2014 only served to widen such attitudes.
Others have been turned from religion by the hypocrisy and the corruption they have seen in religious leaders, especially in theocracies like Iran.
This disappointment and loss of trust in religious leaders and religion was exacerbated by the disappointment many people had at the way the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings turned out. At the time, people believed that these would lead to new freedoms, new employment opportunities, and being able to live with dignity. But all they got was chaos and destruction. And disappointment led to a loss of hope, even among the region’s Christian populations, motivating many more to make the hard decision to emigrate.
But for most Christians and Muslims in the region, emigration has never been a legal or practical option, something that has only added to their loss of hope, noticeably pushing up despair and suicide rates, especially among the young.
It is in this context that there has never been a more important time for Christians to broadcast, on-air and online, messages of hope in our region. But I do not mean just academic, theological messages of hope. I mean a whole gospel, to minister to the whole person, authentically touching all areas of human need: the spiritual, the emotional, the psychological, the socioeconomic, and the educational.
But it is not just taking a holistic approach. It is also seeing God’s Holy Spirit at work in the lives of our viewers, sometimes in a very special way through visions and dreams.
The story of Aziz is typical of such interventions. He is a young Iraqi who had been a militant, fighting with a violent Islamic group in Syria. He telephoned SAT-7 to explain that he had been hiding in a destroyed church during a battle when he had a life-changing vision. He saw the broken pews restored and Christians filling the building, worshiping God.
A man in white, radiating light, walked over to him and touched his shoulder. The militant recognized Him as Jesus Christ from the Jesus film he had watched on SAT-7’s Arabic service. And it was to a SAT-7 counseling line that Aziz turned after he left the ruined church a changed man.
“The living Jesus himself came to me,” he said. “He called me and I told him, ‘I want to follow you.’”
Media continues to give the Christians of the Middle East and North Africa the opportunity to come out of their churches and homes and to be the “salt of the earth,” a “city on a hill,” a “lamp on a lampstand.”
Over the past quarter-century, the Christians of the region have shared their lives through media with millions who may never have spoken with a Christian before. They have shared their sorrows, their joys, and the faith and hope that is theirs. As individuals and a community, they have shown the unconditional forgiveness of God through their own public acts of forgiveness, sometimes in the wake of terrible acts of violence against them.
God is using this witness to bring many to himself and, in the fullness of time, I believe that the rest of the global church will be surprised, even stand in awe, when all that is happening today, in secret, becomes clear to everyone.
If there’s one thing I have learned from my time living among our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and North Africa it is that most of them please God every day through their bold faith in Him, in daring to believe. And they have also helped show me that not daring to believe—not being willing to trust God in such an area of the world—is far more dangerous.
Terence Ascott is founder and president of SAT-7 and author of Dare to Believe.