MENA (MNN) — The Middle East and North Africa are often called the MENA region. But, besides that quick geography lesson, how much do you know about the MENA region?
Dr. Terry Ascott of SAT-7, a satellite TV ministry to the MENA region, says it’s a diverse, non-unified area of around 25 countries.
However, even the definitions of what countries are included as part of the MENA region vary. Some people include Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan as part of the Middle East, while others don’t. The definition of North Africa tends to include countries north of the Sahara. But what about countries straddling this border, like Sudan and Egypt? Furthermore…
“Most of the countries in the MENA region do speak Arabic, but not all of them. And then even within the Arabic speaking countries, there are dozens of different dialects,” Ascott shares. “Some Arabic speakers in North Africa could not understand an Arabic speaker from upper Egypt. And so, we have this cacophony of different dialects and languages across the region.”
“Some Arabic speakers in North Africa could not understand an Arabic speaker from upper Egypt. And so, we have this cacophony of different dialects and languages across the region.”
Diversity, Regional Challenges
Ascott says each of the countries in the MENA region are as different from each other as the countries in Europe. This can pose a challenge to SAT-7 as it broadcasts across this region. To address the linguistic challenges, SAT-7 broadcasts in the three main languages of this area: Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi.
“Arabic is the biggest challenge because of all the diverse…dialects and the huge span of time zones. They cover six time zones from the Mauritania and Morocco right through to the Arabian Peninsula,” Ascott explains.
There is a modern standard Arabic, used often by politicians. It’s a classical Arabic form, which reflects the standard written Arabic in the region.
“If you use this language, most people will understand it. Although, it comes across a bit like Shakespearian English would in England. It’s a bit out of touch with the day to day language of the street,” Ascott shares.
SAT-7’s Work in the Region
But, despite the challenges, TV and radio are powerful tools in the region. This is partly because of the high illiteracy rate common in these countries. Plus, the internet is not as popular, since it requires literacy to navigate and is censored. This means people get most of their entertainment and information from broadcast TV.
“Up until the 1990s, all broadcast television was controlled by different governments. In fact, it was so important that you found tanks stationed outside of TV stations because owning and controlling a TV station means you own and control what people think,” Ascott explains.
“This was the situation up until the first satellite broadcasts bypassed for the first-time government censorship.”
This happened out of London, UK in 1991. Broadcasting continued from London for several years, up until the organization doing the broadcasting moved to Saudi Arabia. Ascott says today, about 400 million people between Afghanistan and Mauritania have access to satellite television.
Sharing Christ in MENA
However, some countries in the MENA region do still hold to apostasy laws. Sometimes, these laws are punishable by death as a capital crime. But, SAT-7 isn’t converting people. It’s simply regularly presenting the Christian faith to 25 million people in the region.
“I would say it’s a basic human right that everyone should have the opportunity to hear the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus, and make an informed decision about how they want to respond to those,” Ascott says.
Yet, it’s actually easier to share the Gospel message in the MENA region than other areas of the world. People there don’t need to be convinced God, absolute morals, and an afterlife exist. They just need to know who God is.
“Presenting the Christian faith in that context is relatively easy,” Ascott says.
“Secondly, I’d like to say and for people to understand that the Middle East is not the closed, impossible situation that is often painted in our media. We only ever hear bad news, it seems, on North American media because it’s only the extreme violence that seems to penetrate the television networks.”
Ascott says most Middle Easterners are not violent. In fact, they’re as appalled and shocked at the violence coming from the region as many Westerners. These people have similar desires to people in the West. They want to raise their families, contribute to their society, and to have good jobs.
Influential Power of Christ
But seeing Muslims see Muslims killing one another for being the wrong type of Muslim or the abuse of power by governments in the name of religion has been a turnoff from following any god. Some have become agnostic or even atheists.
“It’s in this context that we broadcast about the God of love, the God of reconciliation, the God of forgiveness and this resonates with people who are so tired of the endless violence and the killing that’s been going on in the name of religion,” Ascott shares.
SAT-7 has seen amazing responses to Christ in difficult countries like Iran, Syria, Algeria, and more. And because of the radical difference in Christ’s teaching of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, there’s been an increased interest in the Christian faith.
“Once you get past all of these negative stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs and Iranians and Turks, you find that they’re the most hospitable, kind, compassionate people that you can imagine,” Ascott says.
For example, while living in Cairo, Ascott was walking down a street when he saw an elderly woman with a string shopping bag. In it was a glass bottle of cooking oil. In the busyness of the street, the lady was pushed and her bag hit a pole. The bottle broke and she lost her cooking oil.
At this moment, it was clear the woman was distressed by the loss of her cooking oil. Within 10 seconds people on the street were pulling money from their pockets and giving it to her so she could buy more. They were telling her it would be okay.
“This is the kind of spontaneous kindness and hospitality and generosity that you find in the Middles East. And you might find that just astonishing. It just doesn’t fit with all the stereotypes we get through stories of ISIS and the abuse that goes on,” Ascott shares.
“But they are a wonderful, generous people. And it’s not difficult to love them and be concerned and have compassion for them.”
Ultimately, every country and region has its good and its ugly. The MENA region is not alone in this. But, it’s vital to not forget the good and the humanity of the people there.
Pray for people in the MENA region to hear the Gospel and be transformed by Christ’s truth and love. And pray for SAT-7 to continue sharing Christ’s truths in the region.
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