Making waves: Christian broadcasters beam their messages to the world.
With a quick shuffling of chairs, the audience forms into groups of threes and fours and, armed with little white cards, starts to pray. Each card, small enough to slip into a Bible, carries a brief description of a particular language group--Uzbeks and Turkmen, Mazanderanis and Macedonians--and their prayer "needs." One such need reads: "That the spiritual darkness of Islam will be shattered."
To nonbelievers this buzz of earnest activity seems harmless, even absurd. But these people are electronic crusaders. The organizations they support are creating cultural and political havoc around the world.
World Radio Missionary Fellowship hosted the conference in Colorado Springs last summer. It is commonly known by the call letters HCJB, which stand for Heralding Christ Jesus' Blessings. Battling Satan via the airwaves has been HCJB's self-appointed mission since 1931, and its field of operations is huge. It broadcasts its fundamentalist gospel message in forty-one languages and dialects from twelve shortwave transmitters and thirty-two antennae in Quito, Ecuador. It owns a network of FM stations in Ecuador and along the U.S.-Mexican border, and it is helping to set up thirteen stations in Romania and small studios and transmitters all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It owns a television company that airs productions throughout Latin America. It has studio facilities in Panama, Brazil, and Argentina, broadcasts productions from sites in Lebanon, the Seychelles, and Italy, and runs two Ecuadorian hospitals.
The organization is not alone. Trans World Radio, Far East Broadcasting Company, Sudan Interior Mission International, LeSEA Broadcasting, World Wide Christian Radio, World Christian Broadcasting Company, High Adventure Ministries, Family Stations, and others have similar operations in various parts of the globe. In 1985, HCJB, Trans World Radio, Far East Broadcasting Company, and Sudan Interior Mission International joined forces and pooled resources for what they call "World by 2000." They aim to have broadcasts in every language of more than a million speakers by the year 2000.
These organizations are unknown to most Americans. Mention religious broadcasting and people imagine televangelists waving Bibles and demanding credit-card numbers. But outside the United States, evangelical broadcasting, operating on far smaller budgets and headed by less exciting personalities, is having a disturbing impact on Third World communities.
Organizations that claim to avoid politics enjoy intimate relations with political leaders, often while ignoring the plight of a country's citizens. Stations pitched strategically at communist countries and poverty-ridden communities blare a religious philosophy that is unashamedly American, conservative, and individualistic. Their claims of cultural sensitivity toward indigenous peoples ring hollow when stacked against their track records in the countries where they broadcast.
George Bush, well known for hobnobbing with evangelical circles, recently wrote a letter of tribute to the retiring president of Far East Broadcasting Company, Robert Bowman. "Your career," Bush gushed, "has been characterized by your loyalty and dedication to sharing the Word of God, and I am pleased to join your friends and colleagues in saluting you for a job well done." As Bowman's wife, Eleanor, narrates in her triumphant history of Far East Broadcasting Company, Eyes Beyond the Horizon, its "job well done" has consisted of trying to undermine communist governments since 1945 by converting people to Christ.
People "trapped by political oppression" in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and China secretly listen to FEBC by night, Eleanor Bowman boasts. She tells the story of "Ricardo," a Peruvian communist guerrilla. "Plugging the earphone into his radio, he slowly moved the tuner across the dial. It stopped at the spot where Radio Havana's powerful voice spewed out hatred toward its enemies.... Continuing to move the dial across his radio, Ricardo paused for a moment when a voice identified itself as 'La Voz de la Amistad' [Voice of Friendship-FEBC's Latin American service]. The young communist listened intently. He knew he hated his enemies. and suddenly his pent-up feelings burst." Ricardo breaks down, decides to become "a guerrilla for Christ," and founds a church.
It would be easy to dismiss such stories, but all the missionary networks make similar claims. "Would they really be devoting millions and millions of dollars over all these years if they didn't think they were getting something?" asks Sara Diamond, author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right.
In the Philippines, successive governments have showered FEBC with awards. Its allegiance to the Marcos regime was made clear during the 1986 coup when, according to Bowman, FEBC put out a special twenty-four-hour service that interspersed "appropriate passages" from the Bible with prayer and an on-the-hour call for "national repentance."
Support for the far-right Cuban-American National Foundation comes from evangelist Lester Sumrall's LeSEA Broadcasting, which daily airs its programs, "Voice to Haiti" and "Voice of the Foundation," to Latin America via shortwave.
As Diamond documents in her book, some of the organizations with dollars to throw around, like Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Paul Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network, are overtly political. They have provided support to various right-wing causes, from Nicaraguiin contras to Mozambican guerrillas. In the United States, they have broadcast glowing coverage of the South African and Israeli governments.
But most missionary radio networks operate on meager annual budgets in comparison to Robertson's empire. HCJB and Far East Broadcasting Company have approximately $14 million and $10 million apiece, which is provided mostly by donations. Christian Broadcasting Company's income has been estimated to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Although the missionary networks cannot afford to show open support of political causes (and claim to be politically neutral), they kowtow to their host governments and keep the airwaves silent on government human-rights violations and corruption. "In order to maintain their setup," says Diamond, "they have to be supportive of the power elite in those places."
In November 1992, HCJB staff gave a private concert in the presidential palace for Ecuador's new leader, Sixto Duran Ballen. Outside, postal workers and hospital personnel were on strike. Municipal workers blocked roads in protest against government cuts, and the government tried to silence rioters demonstrating against its new economic measures. HCJB and the government enjoy a cozy relationship. According to Ronald Cline, the organization's president, HCJB helps maintain the government's radio and health-care equipment. And the government lets HCJB import its own equipment duty-free. Former Social Welfare Minister Raul Baca Corbo has lauded HCJB for its "positive cultural, social, and educational benefits."
It is true that HCJB has provided much-needed medical care to many indigenous people, has helped them install clean water in their communities, has given them advice on nutrition and hygiene. But it has also voiced support for the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the evangelical organization that was expelled from Ecuador in 1990 at the request of the Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities, which objected to the Institute's alleged connections with the CIA.
The expulsion was one result of a nationwide uprising over indigenous land rights that drew the support of the Catholic Church, labor, women's. and peasants' movements. The government responded with tear gas, tanks, and army troops. Ronald Cline minimized the uprising. It was "a real small group," with "many from outside Ecuador," he told me. More people marched in favor of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, he says, rather than in support of the indigenous groups. A prayer need on the Quechua language card reads, "Uphold Quechua leaders who have entered politics and become weakened spiritually."
Radio station ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) is owned by Sudan Interior Mission International and broadcast from Liberia to the whole of West Africa until the studios were destroyed in 1990 as a result of the civil war. It now airs in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, and plans are under way to re-expand. During the 1980s, ELWA was one of many U.S.-sponsored evangelical organizations in the country.
"Liberia was effectively an American colony," writes Paul Gifford, author of Christianity and Politics in Doe's Liberia. "The Christianity spread in Liberia was not some timeless distillate from the Scriptures. Its particular form could only be explained by American history, culture, and preoccupations. . . . This Christianity served as one more way of serving American interests." ELWA never aired any programs that might offend General Samuel Doe's repressive regime.
"Any social message was viewed as crypto-communism or humanism," says Gifford. In the midst of a dictatorship characterized by ballot-tampering, a mismanaged economy, and scant regard for public services or human rights, ELWA continued to blare "reassuring" ospel messages. Gifford recorded the rantings of preacher Gil Rugh, on his program Sound Words:
"I am either the enemy of the world or the enemy of God," Rugh said. "The world still hates Jesus Christ. That's the reason I have a problem with positiveness today. The Biblical message is negative."
The station's notion of social awareness, says Gifford, was urging listeners to drink clean water.
The missionary evangelical broadcasters say their airwaves are untainted by ideological rhetoric. But their version of the gospel is highly political and unsuited to the needs of people living in a Third World community. "To tell the listeners to be quiet and just wait for heaven is political," argues Jim Rice, an editor at Sojourners magazine, a minority, left-leaning voice for evangelicals. "It's the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing problem," he says of their allegedly neutral message. "It's not only oppressive, it's also misrepresentation of the gospel."
Pie charts, graphs, projections, numbers these are the tools of the electronic crusaders. They seem more concerned with the numbers of converts than the converts themselves. Their overwhelming concern is to beam Christ to the "millions of unreached peoples"--using satellite dishes and signature tunes. The message of the gospel is reduced to a commercial for Christ.
"There is a certain marketing of the Word of God," says Pablo Richard, a liberation theologian based in Costa Rica. The most extreme broadcasts, he says, made by people like Jimmy Swaggart, whose slick style and Pentecostal beliefs alienate many fundamentalist evangelicals, are no more than a cheap. spiritual drug. They are one more American product: "Consume Coca-Cola . . . consume Jesus Christ." says Richard.
The big four missionary networks HCJB, TWR, FEBC. and ELWA--say their programs are indigenous products that use native personnel and native languages. But many are little more than translations or, at best, imitations of American products. Programs made by U.S.-based ministries--with names like Back to the Bible, Family Bible Hour, Focus on the Family, Insight for Living, and Thru the Bible--air all over the world in different languages. ELWA is "essentially an American voice, even if it is broadcast by Africans in African languages." says Gifford.
On a recent HCJB broadcast of Focus on the Family, a twice-daily program made by the family-values, anti-gay ministry in English, Spanish, French, and Russian, a discussion centered on the topic of aggressive women. It was no debate--the panel agreed that women today are too aggressive. One man referred to the increasing number of females who call men up, on the phone, to ask them out. "That disturbs me," he said.
Focus on the Family gives "nice" advice about bringing up children and keeping marriages alive. But it also touches on such issues as abortion. HCJB has itself made two videos on abortion for audiences in Latin America. One, co-produced with Christian Broadcasting Network, will be shown soon on "family channels" as part of a series of spots to "momentarily bombard viewers with snatches of life in Latin America, then suggest God's solution," HCJB's magazine explains. And its community-development teams, after a day spent tending to medical needs, also show videos "that present Biblical truths." Apart from one on abortion, they have teaching videos on such topics as How Then Should We Live and Family In Crisis, and a film warning against the evils of "new-age philosophy."
In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a similar concern for telling people how to live their lives has seen evangelical television and radio stations pop up as fast as Kmarts. Broadcasters lament the people's "spiritual vacuum" and cannot wait to fill it with Christian morals and values.
"The majority seem to live only for food, sex, and gambling," wrote two HCJB Czech broadcasters recently. "Former Iron Curtain countries are flooded by cults, false religions, the occult, pornography, drugs, prostitution, and economic ills. . . . Where do we start? With the gospel, of course!"
Father Leonid Kishkovsky, who chairs the European Committee for the liberal, U.S.-based National Council of Churches, objects to their invasion. "Even when the motivation is a genuine and authentic one, the delivery of the message is quite insensitive to local culture. It is simply the message that you would hear in southern California."
Liberation theology cannot compete against right-wing evangelicals in the religious broadcasting arena. A group whose main support comes from the poor has little hope of finding the funds to finance broadcast facilities, says Pablo Richard.
Liberation theologians use some community radio stations in Latin America. But Richard opposes preaching from on high. "To evangelize is not to give a sermon to convince people," he argues. "We need to educate people, to encourage people, to reconstruct hope among people."
But a community radio audience can only be small. And the potential evangelical audience is growing.
[paragraph] In the shanty towns of northern Mexico, the slums of Manila, and the remote, jungle regions of Ecuador, evangelical broadcasters hand out pre-tuned radios--radios that will pick up only their signals.
[paragraph] This fall, a satellite network jointly owned and run by HCJB and TWR will make programs available to the more than 300 evangelical stations in Latin America. Many of those stations cannot afford to make their own programs, but for a subscription fee and the installation of a receiving dish, they will be able to carry the missionary networks' productions.
[paragraph] Outside Latin America, shortwave programming continues to expand. The missionary networks have already overtaken Voice of America, which now broadcasts in only forty-seven languages. FEBC alone has programs in about 140 languages and dialects.
These networks cannot claim audiences of billions, as they sometimes imply in their literature. But a 1992 survey of listeners in Venezuela, which has a population of nine million, gave Trans World Radio a regular Spanish audience of one million and an occasional audience of 1.1 million. Far East Broadcasting Company claims to receive 50,000 listener letters each month.
The political consequences are far-reaching. Says Diamond: "To the extent that you can sustain [a group], even if it's only a minority portion of the religious community in a given country, in a version of Christianity that is really conservative, then you're able to prevent the implications of what it would mean if more and more people moved toward religious expression that's more pertinent to their daily lives."
Next to the U.S. and state flags which stand outside the headquarters of LeSEA broadcasting in South Bend, Indiana, is a Christian banner--a red cross on a small, blue square, bordered on two sides by an expanse of white. It stakes a claim. This is holy territory, says. As broadcasting expands. American evangelicals hope to plant more and more flags. They use a battle-speak with such terms as "deploying forces," "strategizing methods," and "targeting areas." Many believe if they don't fight the battle now--against the Reds, the Muslims, the heathens, the secular humanists--they may be too late. They cite the words of Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations, and then the end shall come."
Paul Freed, president of Trans World Radio, wrote recently in the organization's magazine: "I believe the world events that are now unfolding are leading up to the Lord's imminent return. . . . Time is running out for Christians to tell the world the message of salvation."
The sense of urgency that pervades fundamentalist thought is causing a boom in missionary activity. The approaching millennium has inspired a host of projects like World By 2000. There is no shortage of minions to let loose on the world. The number of "unreached" peoples diminishes daily. And each new crusade leaves in its wake not just a radio station or a satellite dish, but a version of Christianity that coddles right-wing regimes and upholds U.S. domination in the Third World.
Missionaries in the Middle East
An Armageddon warmup" is how George Otis described the Israeli-Lebanese clashes last July. Otis, a charismatic Christian who believes in faith healing and speaking in tongues, presides over High Adventure ministries--five radio stations in the Middle East, a shortwave station in California aimed at Latin America, and a station for Asian listeners based in Palau.
He characterized the recent fighting in the Middle East as a "violent outbreak of terrorism" in which the "Israeli military .. were forced to respond, flying more than 200 bombing sorties to counter the terrorist aggression against Jewish civilians and soldiers."
Otis makes no secret of his pro-Israeli politics. He believes that the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. "The Bible is so clear about what the parameters of that nation would be . . . that those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed. God says that they're still His chosen people," he told me.
This position has led Otis to forge close friendships with Israeli authorities. Photographs in his early history of the Middle East radio network, Voice of Hope, show Otis smiling next to Yitzhak Rabin, Otis discussing the Bible with Menachem Begin, Otis listening to Colonel Meier Dagan, a senior official in the Israeli army in 1980. He describes his close workings with Major Saad Haddad, a far-right Lebanese, who used the radio ministry to broadcast his own anti-palestinian propaganda.
Otis's friendship with Haddad prompted a call from the U.S. State Department in 1979, at the height of Middle East peace negotiations. "High Adventure's dalliances with Haddad could constitute a threat to the success of American peace initiatives in the Middle East by embarrassing the U.S. Government in the eyes of the Arab governments," Otis recalls the angry official scolding. "The whole thing you are doing is unauthorized and highly suspect."
Otis's stations are obvious targets for the Palestine Liberation Organization. He describes in his book a 1980 mortar attack directed at the area in which his stations lay. Broadcaster Chuck Pollak tells his colleagues about an angel he saw "standing in midair.... I saw the shell coming down, almost straight down, right toward the shack. It was just going over the angel's left shoulder when he caught it with his left hand and grabbed it by its fins. Then, faster than I could see it stop, the angel hurled it back toward Beaufort [a PLO stronghold]."
But angels did not prevent the 1985 bombing by terrorists of Otis's Voice of Hope studios in Southern Lebanon. Five staff members were killed. "We're not one of the most popular people with the PLO," admits broadcast-relations manager Ralph McDevitt.
Otis is not alone in the Middle East. HCJB uses his shortwave station in Lebanon to broadcast in Uzbek, Georgian, and Czech to Europe and the former Soviet Union. It also supplies High Adventure with its transmitters, according to Ronald Cline. Pat Robertson owns Middle East Television in southern Lebanon, which Otis originally built and then gave to Robertson in 1982. It broadcasts to the entire Middle East.
Dale Bishop, director of the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches, has little respect for U.S. evangelical broadcasters in the area whose view of Israel and its policies is uncritical. "They create an image of Christian thought which is contrary to what [Arab] Christians in the area actually believe." Indigenous Christians share the culture and language of the Muslim community in a fragile relationship in which conversion efforts are kept to a minimum.
"I don't think Western Christians have any business doing broadcasting in the Middle East," says Bishop. "It's really the Western-oriented missionary that has caused problems in the region."
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on George Otis's High Adventure ministries|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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