In the World's Rural Outposts, A Shortwave Channel to God

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 7, 2007

HOMOINE, Mozambique -- As dusk fell deep in a forest of mango and palm trees, Jaime Jeremias Matsimbe sat on the rose-colored dirt and hand-cranked a shortwave radio, looking for the word of God.

He wound the little plastic handle round and round, charging the radio like winding a watch, and soon a preacher's voice boomed across a courtyard filled with goats and turkeys. Twenty miles from the nearest paved road, Matsimbe smiled as he listened to a Texas preacher's sermons about Jesus and Saint Paul, translated into a local language spoken only in the southern African backcountry.

"I love that this person has brought us this message," said Matsimbe, 59, a farmer with 24 grandchildren, whose native language, Xitshwa, is spoken by only a million or so people. "It makes us feel like there is somebody who cares for us."

From the forests of Africa to the deserts of Mongolia and the Middle East, there have never been more religious radio networks and stations broadcasting more programming in more languages to more places. While the globalization of faith has increasingly been driven by the Internet and satellite television, religious radio broadcasters are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on one of the world's oldest methods of mass communication.

"In the developing world, many people find that radio is about the only mechanism that is available," said Robert Fortner, a specialist in religious broadcasting and director of the U.S.-based Media Research Institute. "They hang on to it the way people hang on to a life raft after a tsunami."

Radio is helping drive the growth of religion worldwide as religious broadcasters expand the popularity, reach and influence of their churches. In the world's most distant corners, they are reaching millions of people largely cut off from the world by money, distance and language.

"These programs connect people to a world that they otherwise have no access to," Fortner said. "They indicate to these folks that someone 'out there' cares enough about them to prepare programs in their own language and speak to them about their own struggles."

To "reach the unreached" in rural areas where electricity is a distant dream and even batteries are a luxury, broadcasters are also distributing hundreds of $50 windup radios. In this small market village about 300 jaw-jarring miles northeast of the capital, Maputo, the local United Methodist and Anglican pastors received new radios last month and now gather parishioners to listen to evangelical programs.

"This brings more people to the church," said Xavier Muaga, the Anglican pastor. "Some people started going to church and gave up, and these programs convince them to come back. Others who have never been to church hear this and are convinced to become Christians."

A Filter of Faith

Much of the growth in religious radio began with a global trend toward government deregulation of the airwaves in the 1990s, according to industry analysts. Graham Mytton, who headed the BBC's international market research for more than 25 years, noted that Africa had just two radio stations that were not state-owned at the end of the 1980s; now it has at least 3,000.

Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, about 2,000 private radio stations, many of them carrying religious programming, have sprouted in the 15 former Soviet republics, where religious worship was all but banned. "Things gradually changed, then became a gallop," Mytton said.

Christianity, the world's largest religion with about 2 billion adherents, has the most massive presence on global religious airwaves. Christian programs range from Bible readings to radio seminary courses for undereducated pastors. Muslim stations broadcast Koranic recitations, news and music. Hindus, Buddhists and followers of many other religions also sponsor radio broadcasts around the world.

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