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The Middle East air war

Issue: "Portable Pentagon," March 1, 2003

Al Jazeera may have been banned and harassed by Muslim governments throughout the Middle East, but that doesn't make it the most controversial broadcaster in the region. That distinction goes to a handful of radio companies using the airwaves to do what cannot be done on the ground: spread the Christian gospel in the Islamic world. With war on the horizon, those broadcasters are preparing for a surge of interest in their message.

"War gets people to think about their own mortality," says the American-educated Arabic speaker who serves as regional director for the Far East Broadcasting Association (Feba). "In the three years following the first Gulf War, we had the highest response rate in our 30-year history." (The Feba executive, whom we'll call Hosni Nasser, does not use his real name in interviews or when he's traveling in Islamic countries, because of legitimate concern for his life.)

Like Trans World Radio and IBRA, a Swedish-based Pentecostal mission, Feba reaches the entire Arab world with a rag-tag network of shortwave, satellite, and AM/FM technology. Webcasts are increasing, too, but current estimates peg Internet access in the Middle East at just 1 percent of the population.

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Mr. Nasser says most listeners can access 8 to 10 hours of programming a day, though not always in their preferred medium. That used to mean 8 to 10 hours of Bible studies and preaching programs, but no more. "That's not the strength of radio," he explains. "We still have Bible study programs, but we're emphasizing news and current events, sports, women's shows, and so forth. We're trying to show how the gospel relates to every aspect of life." Radio drama gets a lot of airtime in a region where illiteracy approaches 50 percent, and teens are drawn to discussions of sexual relationships, work versus family, and other "taboo" topics.

The programming mix seems to be working. Last year, Feba received some 4,000 letters from listeners throughout the region. That may not seem like a huge response, but Mr. Nasser points out that many listeners don't know how to write, and those who do face postal authorities who routinely censor the mail. "Sometimes we get letters saying, 'This is the 10th time I've written you. Why don't you answer me?'

"When you consider all the opposition," Mr. Nasser says, "the numbers are quite encouraging."

Naturally, many Arab authorities are not thrilled with those numbers, but Mr. Nasser says they are not as actively hostile as they used to be. Back in the 1980s and '90s, Arab governments would lodge official diplomatic complaints, jam signals, and do anything else they could to stop the Christian broadcasts. Today, Muslim fanatics may still send the occasional death threat, "But when it comes to the governments, we're not public enemy No. 1 anymore. They're more afraid of the Muslim extremists in their own countries now."

For the individual Muslim who converts to Christianity, however, life is as dangerous and uncertain as ever. In countries like Saudi Arabia, "abandoning Islam" is still punishable by beheading, while Christians in more moderate countries may be disowned by their families or fired from their jobs.

"It's after conversion that the real struggle starts," Mr. Nasser says. "Jobs, marriage, it all becomes very difficult. Then there's the loneliness factor-there's no place for them to go for fellowship. We try to encourage them through the programming. We have programs specifically targeted to young believers to help them grow, daily Scripture readings for those who don't own a Bible. We try to act as a fellowship for them until the day when they have a local church."

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