By Linda Bordoni
Information, education, entertainment, spirituality and the Christian message of hope, inclusion and love are all part of SAT-7 Satellite TV’s programmes that are beamed to millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa.
As Kurt Johansen, SAT-7’s Executive Director for Europe, Asia and the Pacific explained to me, at least 400 million Arabic-speakers in the Middle East and North Africa have access to satellite TV.
Thanks to the wide range of programmes broadcast by SAT-7 and to the commitment and vitality of those who work for the network, some 95% percent of the region’s population can turn on their television and find the very thing most needed in their troubled region: hope.
Kurt was in the Vatican “to liaise and align” with some of the Vatican Councils and Dicasteries in a two-way relationship that aims to have a positive influence on Middle Eastern society, address social issues from a Christian perspective, and make the Gospel message available to as many people as possible, including Christian communities who are dying out in countries like Iraq and Syria.
I have spoken to Kurt Johansen on a number of occasions in the past years as he always makes a point of contacting us here at Vatican Radio when he visits Vatican officials in Rome.
Last time he came with Rita El-Mounayer, a SAT-7 staff member, who at the time was a talented and energetic producer and presenter, and who has since been appointed Chief Executive Officer of SAT-7 satellite TV.
This appointment, Kurt said with satisfaction, makes her the network’s first woman director, a professional “from the younger generation,” who is overseeing SAT-7 together with a board made up mostly of bishops from a number of Middle East churches.
Kurt reminded me that the satellite TV network has studios in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as an international office in Cyprus, “the stepping stone to the Middle East.”
Noting that there are 400 million people in the Middle East who have a satellite dish, he said that “the internet is coming, but is still not as widespread as elsewhere because the prices are too high, many people are illiterate and it is also censored in some countries.”
Satellite TV, Kurt said, is still the only uncensored medium and it’s very cheap: “a satellite dish will cost you 20 euros, and once you have it, you have unlimited access to a lot of different channels.”
The network provides an especially valuable service to millions of people who have been displaced because of war or persecution.
Kurt said so many of them “are living in horrible, unimaginable conditions: they have nothing to do, they cannot get a job, there is nothing to do outside their shanty or their tent, there is no law and order. It’s dangerous to go out… they sit in their shanties or their tents and watch television, that’s almost the only thing they can do.”
He recalls a visit a couple of years ago to the Bekah Valley in Lebanon where he visited many refugee families and described their reality as bleak. But, he said, “I could not fine one tent without a satellite TV and a dish hooked up to a generator.”
“It is their way of getting information from their home country; it is also their way of ‘dreaming away’ their situation,” he said.
So, Kurt told me, SAT-7 has a special service for refugees: “We are teaching refugee children, who have been out of school for 6 or 7 years, how to read and write, mathematics, science, English, how to be a good citizen”.
“We are also teaching their mothers how to cook with hardly any food, and how to exercise where there are no fitness centers,” he added.
Not to forget programmes that deal with trauma counselling and other social issues. Because refugees, Kurt continued “are one of our most important viewers now.”
Relations with Vatican Dicasteries and Councils
Kurt was in the Vatican to meet with officials from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, from Propaganda Fide and from the Congregation of Social Communications in order, he explained, “to create awareness and align with what is done in the Vatican.”
“We have a lot of things in common. I want the Vatican to know what we are doing and I also want to be inspired by what is going on in the Vatican offices,” he said.
While the network does its best in taking the Christian message to the Middle East, it is important, he explained, to keep informed with what the Vatican thinks, for example, about migration, refugees and so on, in order to be able to work together, in unity.
SAT-7: a common voice for different churches
Kurt told me that Christian Unity, for example, has much to do with the work of SAT-7 that is present in countries where there are “all Christian churches of the Middle East in all of their diversity,” and it is doing its best to show unity in diversity.
“In a region where there is a lot of division, to show the unity is a very, very important witness to the world,” he said.
Christians, Kurt said, are divided for historical and other reasons, “but they can still be together and they can still have one TV station called SAT-7 as a common voice for many different churches.”
Interreligious dialogue and good neighbourship
Of course, he pointed out, ecumenism is not the only dynamic that comes into play in the Middle East: “Most of our viewers are not Christians and we do a lot to build bridges to the Muslim society. We are citizens in the same country with the same problems: lack of work, lack of democracy, lack of freedoms, lack of justice.”
“So let’s build a better society together: that is our voice,” he said.
Kurt told me that one very popular programme currently being broadcast is a drama in episodes that narrates the interaction between two families - one Christian and the other Muslim - living together in the same building.
Obviously, he said, they have a lot of misunderstandings about each other and the drama tells of how they solve these issues.
He described it as poignant yet humoristic: “you have to entertain on TV –we call it edutainment – when you educate and you entertain at the same time!”
Christians of Iraq and Syria
One new challenge Kurt said he will be bringing back to Head Office with him, is the need to do more for the Christians of Iraq and Syria.
During this visit he said that what he learned from Vatican officials “is that we need to do more for those Christians – to bring the hope to those who have lost everything, who hardly have any hope for a better situation, for a better future in countries where their families have lived for almost 2000 years as Christians.”
Christianity, he said, is about to die out in some of these countries like Iraq, and “we must support those who are still there in their witness to Jesus Christ, for them to be able to stay there and be light and salt and have a prophetic voice in their societies.”
SAT-7 and Pope Francis
The day I met Kurt was the day Pope Francis set off for his Apostolic Visit to Thailand and Japan. I asked him whether news of an apostolic journey would be featured on SAT-7. “Sure” he said, “we must acknowledge that most of our viewers are not travelling, they are not watching international television, so we do a lot to show Christianity around the world, so an event like this is very important for us to show.”
In particular, regarding this trip for example, Kurt pointed out that also in Thailand Christians are a minority but, he said, they do well, “so we want to talk to middle easterners about other minorities in the world”.
Social media and hope for the future
Finally, with a view to the future, Kurt said the network has decided to increase its investment in social media: “as we sit here there will be 4000 people watching a YouTube video of SAT-7, we have millions of face book friends, so this is probably the future.”
Notwithstanding so many critical situations in the Middle East, Kurt said he remains hopeful: “I believe there has never been a better time to invest in God’s Kingdom in the Middle East. People’s hearts are open, they need the message of love and forgiveness, of grace, of mercy, of a loving God. I believe there is a future for the Christians of the Middle East and for the Churches of the Middle East.”