Cover Story

Broadcast news

What happens when an elderly Coptic priest takes to the airwaves and the internet to confront Islam? Death threats, conversions, and a global following. Meet Zakaria Botros, WORLD's 2008 Daniel of the Year.

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

At 28 minutes before air time, an assistant is lint-rolling Father Zakaria Botros' cassock, polishing the pectoral cross he wears over it and giving the dark circles beneath his eyes a last smudge of makeup from a cosmetics sponge. The studio lights are on, the clock is running, and assistants are checking a pair of teleprompters. Two full glasses of water, one for Botros and one for his guest, stand ready at opposite ends of the table where the men will sit.

At 20 minutes before air time Botros, his guest, and crew pause to pray. It is 9 p.m. on a Thursday evening in Cairo, 10 p.m. in Riyadh, and 10:30 in Tehran. Botros, an Egyptian, will host the live show about to be broadcast via Cyprus-based satellite channel Al-Hayat, which will last 90 minutes and may have an audience of up to 60 million viewers across the Arab world and beyond-from the Middle East to Europe to North America to Australia. And most of the viewers who sit down to watch the televised ruminations of a 75-year-old Christian will be Muslims.

Botros has been hosting Truth Talk since 2003. The weekly show grew out of an internet chat room attended by thousands where the Coptic priest engaged Muslims on the inherent contradictions of their own religion and found that he was leading many to faith in Jesus Christ. As the geographic scope of the show has grown, so has its reach into the lives of Muslims. It is broadcast in Arabic, and this year began also to be translated for Turkish audiences and into Farsi to be aired in Iran.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

Father Zakaria, as he is known to millions, has won his enormous following not by borrowing from the toolbox of the televangelist. For someone whose ecclesiastical tradition began in a.d. 100, his tools are decidedly 21st century: satellite uplinks, Wi-Fi connectivity, a late-edition Vaio laptop that is with him at all times, and a trusted reference tool he refers to as "St. Google." He can spend 14-hour days on research for each show, and for this episode emailed the final script to producers at 4:30 a.m.

The result is less a preaching ministry and more like battlefield strategy. It's the late-in-life culmination of a conscious decision, Botros says, to move away from apologetics and toward what he calls polemics: "My program is to attack Islam, not to attack Muslims but to save them because they are deceived. As I love Muslims, I hate Islam."

Such conviction earns Botros a heady following-and serious enemies. Jihadist groups have reportedly posted a death threat worth $60 million against him. This year his name and photo appeared on an al-Qaeda website, seeking retribution for his teachings, which often depict Muhammad as less of a prophet and more of a womanizer. For his fearless determination in the face of his enemies, for his willingness to label Islam a false religion in a year when many Christian leaders have overreached in their quest for common ground with its worshippers, Zakaria Botros is WORLD's 2008 Daniel of the Year.

When Al Jazeera began broadcasting about a decade ago as the only independent channel in the Middle East, the Qatar-based news station opened a door to the free flow of information no Arab dictator could close. Until about 2000, state-sponsored news broadcasts and censorship were the norm (satellite dishes remain illegal in Iran, and were banned until the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere). As more Arabs could own televisions and the programming grew, all it took to outsmart the censors was a tuner and a set.

What followed was a burst of Arabic-language programming. Islamic teachers of every type leapt to the airwaves, hoping to expand the teaching of the mosque-once reserved for Friday prayer services and male-only audiences-to 24/7 preaching and propaganda piped directly into the Muslim living room. Botros is turning their campaign on its head. By culling from what's now a bloated archive of televised remarks from the Islamic world's leading sheikhs and imams, he has found a potent way to expose the war within Islam, including raging debates between reformers and traditionalists, and to force Muslims who for generations took its teaching at face value to examine it at its roots.

One recent episode of Truth Talk, aired Nov. 21, cut to 20 separate clips, most of Cairo's respected Al-Azhar University Sheikh Khaled El-Gendy, to debate the age of Aisha when she became Muhammad's second wife. Islamic hadiths (the sayings and actions of Muhammad) say she was 6 years old when married and 9 when the marriage was consummated (and reportedly returned to play with her toys afterward). Yet many scholars-and a controversial new novel about Aisha, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones that was dropped from Random House's list because of Muslim threats-have tried to paper over the obvious morality issue of child marriage with assertions that Aisha was 14 or even 18. What's at stake, it becomes clear as the episode unfolds, is whether the Quran and the hadiths can be both true and exemplary.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…