"Touch Your Screen and be Healed!": Reconsidering the History of Televangelism in the Middle East

By Febe Armanios
Submitted to Session P4802 (Mass Media in Middle East Historiography, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In 1981, Christian television came to the Middle East. Based in South Lebanon, and with the primary goal of evangelizing to Israeli Jews and of hastening Christ’s Second Coming, “Middle East Television” (METV) was managed by American televangelist Pat Robertson, a dispensationalist and charismatic Christian whose political and financial influence were on the rise in the United States. Until the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, Robertson ran this station as part of his global Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). The channel variably reached audiences in Lebanon, northern Israel, Jordan, as well as parts of Syria and Egypt. METV was known for its eclectic shows, intermixing American Christian programming (subtitled in Arabic) with NFL football games and wholesome comedies or dramas.

But the channel should also be credited for introducing Arab televangelism to the region. Long before ‘Amr Khaled became known for his dynamic preaching and before Islamic televangelism in the Arab world exploded through the “satellite revolution” of the 1990s and 2000s, there was Elias Malki (1931-2015) and “The Good News Program.” In 1982, Malki—a Pentecostal Lebanese-American minister—had been asked by Robertson to develop an Arabic version of the “700 Club.” His style, modeled on that of American televangelist Oral Roberts (1918-2009) was novel and controversial. Audiences were invited, within the privacy of their own homes, to participate in performances of mimetic prayer, as Malki commanded those afflicted with any ailment, physical or spiritual, to press their hands on their television screens and ask God for healing. In the Middle East, there had been nothing like Malki’s televangelistic ministry. Indeed, leaders of traditional Christian denominations balked at this “foreign” preaching style and suggested that these ostentatious performances were “not our Christianity.”

Despite this resistance, my paper suggests that Malki’s program had a palpable influence on the region’s mediascape. The program aired for a decade on METV and later on new Christian satellite channels that sprouted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Malki’s “native” style, among the earliest to develop in the Global South, exemplified how religious television became a new “point of contact” between local charismatic preachers/healers and viewers/seekers. This model would be later emulated, be it directly or indirectly, by scores of Arab Christian preachers but also by the likes of Khaled and other charismatic Muslim televangelists.