BEIRUT — A game show about the Bible, broadcasting from the Middle East?
That’s what is happening on OTV, a secular station, in Lebanon.
The weekly program, Jil el Injil (“Generation of the Gospel”), is now in its fifth year and reaches millions of people with each episode, according to its creator and host, Maronite Father Joseph Soueid.
“I like to spread the Good News through TV,” the priest told the Register.
Two teams, each comprised of three contestants, compete against each other in each episode, which covers 50-75 questions, all prepared by Father Soueid, focusing on passages from the Old Testament and New Testament, interspersed with questions about general knowledge of the faith.
Jil el Injil participants represent all of the Christian rites present in Lebanon: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. “We join people together with the word of God,” the priest emphasized. The last two years have featured well-known Lebanese, such as singers, TV presenters, actors and politicians.
In a country that was torn apart by civil war, Jil el Injil has gathered figures from Lebanon’s rival Christian political parties to compete in their knowledge of the Bible. “I tell them: ‘You are not divided anymore. You are family, the family of Christ,” Father Soueid said.
The 90-minute show takes three and a half to four hours to tape, “and in that time, the guests really do become close,” the priest said.
Each team comes up with its team name that reflects Christianity in some way. Teams featured in past episodes have included “Jesus My Strength,” “Holy Spirit” and “Divine Mercy.”
Jil el Injil’s atmosphere is lively and light, yet ever respectful to the Bible and Christianity. Father Soueid playfully chides the participants when they don’t know the answers to the questions, and he commends their correct responses. Contestants frequently exchange banter with each other, but intently ponder the questions. The teams are told two weeks in advance which parts of the Bible will be covered in the program, so they have ample time to prepare.
On hand, seated between the two teams, is a biblical authority to interject, when needed, with deeper, more extensive information related to the questions. Maronite Sister Bassima Khoury of the Antonine Maronite Order has served in this role during the last few seasons.
Every episode also features a religious painting created during the competition by Lebanese artist Ghassan Mahfouz.
And the Jil el Injil band, aside from playing two hymns during each show, provides “winning” or “losing” musical jingle sound effects, depending on the guests’ responses to questions.
Father Soueid opens Jil el Injil with a message, often focusing on an issue of concern to the Lebanese people. “I present it with a biblical, Christian perspective,” the priest explained.
Last season, for example, in the episode that coincided with the election of Lebanon’s president (always a Maronite Catholic), after the post was vacant for two and a half years, Father Soueid referred to Ezekiel 34 in his introduction. “It was a message to all those responsible — the president, the deputies, the religious shepherds — everybody,” the priest recounted, noting that the Bible passage not only applies to religious shepherds, but to public leaders, as well.
Father Soueid told them: “Beware. The wolves are everywhere, waiting to devour the sheep,” urging leaders to carry out their responsibilities seriously.
In another episode, the priest began the program by telling viewers that a grave sin in these times “is blindness of the heart” to misery, whether hunger, sickness or suffering, in the world.
“The program has one target: to address the Christian community,” Father Soueid said. “My aim is for people to become more involved with the word of God, to love the teaching of the Gospel, to love the Church. I want to bring them to the Lord,” he said.
At the same time, “there are a lot of people who follow OTV, including Muslims,” Father Soueid said. “We live in the same country, the same areas, and sometimes in the same (apartment) building, so they would like to know more about us. And this is a fun way, an interactive way, to present the Gospel to them, and they find it beautiful.”
About 40% of Lebanon’s existing population of approximately 4 million is Christian (not counting the more than 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, mostly from Syria).
“We are a ‘mission country,’” Father Soueid stressed, pointing to what Pope John Paul II said: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
“And we have this message to share all over the world,” Father Soueid added. “Our Christian community is still surviving, insisting on fighting with the word and not with the sword.”
The 48-year-old Maronite priest has served as pastor of St. Takla parish in the Sed El Bauchrieh section of Beirut since 1998. The parish serves 6,850 Maronite families. With seating for just 280 people, the church overflows with the faithful for each of its eight Masses on Sundays and has generated 24 vocations in the last eight years. It also has active groups — for children, teens, university students and young professionals, as well as for parents — who meet on a weekly basis.
But Father Soueid noticed that the youth, in particular, don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible. He attributes this, in part, to the Maronite rite’s rotation of 56 Gospels in one year (Sunday Mass and Holy Week), whereas in the Latin Rite, over the course of four years, the entire Gospel is presented during Sunday Mass.
Knowing that young people like competition, the priest said, “I wanted to find a way to encourage them, because they are the future of the Church.”
That reasoning was part of the inspiration for Father Soueid to develop the show, an idea which he credits as “a gift from God.” Mock programs were tested in the small parish hall, with parishioners participating as contestants.
Initially, Jil el Injil aired on Telelumiere, the first and only Christian television in Lebanon and the Middle East, based in Lebanon, where the priest still appears as a guest on interview programs. Contestants in the first three years were high-school seniors, university students and youth from apostolic movements.
But after several years on Telelumiere, which broadcasts satellite programming worldwide under the name Noursat, Father Soueid felt it was time “to implement the seed on secular TV.”
“It was an important decision for us,” said Roy Hachem, chief executive of OTV, regarding the station’s decision to start airing Jil el Injil in 2015. “We are a generalist TV station, and we are supposed to address all Lebanese. But it was important for us to do it because we realize that people really don’t know the Bible,” said the Maronite Catholic executive. “We go to church every Sunday, but we listen always to the same (Bible) chapters. So when Father Soueid asked me if we could do this program, my answer was: ‘Yes.’”
That decision is regularly reinforced by responses from viewers.
“I realize this program has a very good image — also, the audience is very good,” Hachem told the Register. “That means people like it, and they want something like this.”
“When I travel, when I meet the Lebanese diaspora, the first thing they tell me is they like the show,” he added.
OTV is available in the Arab world, the European Union, Canada, the United States and Australia. Although OTV does not have exact figures, the station is widely watched in Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
Hachem estimates that 90%-95% of its audience is Christian, but Jil el Injil also has Muslim viewership.
“It’s like a game, so it helps people to watch it because the concept is easy — the question-and-answer format — and the mood is funny; it’s light,” Hachem said.
“I’m sure that many Muslims are watching it. I have many Muslim friends who watch it from time to time,” he added.
Hashem believes the program has a mission: “We live in the region where Christianity began. So it’s important to tell people all over the world that we (Christians) still exist here.”
Jil el Injil airs Monday evenings, and each episode is repeated twice in the same week. The current season features youth contestants, with Lebanese celebrities as special guests.
The program has the blessing of the Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Rai.
In an awards ceremony in January honoring last season’s winners at Bkerke, the Maronite patriarchate, Cardinal Rai congratulated the show’s participants for their “superior knowledge” of the Bible and urged them to apply it in their families, careers and in their social and political lives.
Cardinal Rai also thanked Father Soueid, adding that the program “has succeeded in its mission to announce the message of the Gospel” to its viewers.
Father Soueid’s dream is to bring the program to an English-speaking country such as the United States, Canada or Australia. With that in mind, he already has prepared thousands of questions in English to be used for an English format. Meanwhile, his biggest challenge is finding benefactors for the Lebanon production, which receives no Church funding.
No matter the challenges, the priest is committed to bringing the Bible to the masses: “I feel Jesus has given me a great mission. It’s as though I am preaching. I’m giving Jesus to people.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.