Two young men from very different backgrounds are helping change lives in the Middle East, by showing “even people who ‘should’ be enemies can be friends”
Listening to Tanas and Joseph talk enthusiastically about everything from hi-tech gadgets to high-speed motorcycles, one wouldn’t guess that by most accounts, these two men should hate each other.
“People I know ask me how as a Palestinian I can have Jewish friends,” Tanas says. “And when I tell them about Jewish friends who believe in Jesus, they’re shocked.”
“I grew up in a secular Jewish family in the eastern US,” Joseph chimes in. “At an early age I was taught to distrust people of Arab descent. Not necessarily to hate them outright, but to always be on my guard. Fortunately, that suspicious attitude didn’t have a chance to take root.”
When Joseph was 14, a Christian friend began talking to him about Jesus.
“Of course I resisted,” says Joseph, “As Jews you can do, say or think almost anything – except believe in Jesus.” Joseph’s friend, Mark, challenged him to read the Old Testament.
“I grew jealous of people in the Scriptures who had a relationship with God. I wanted that same kind of relationship.” Then Joseph began reading the New Testament, in secret so his family wouldn’t find out.
“Jesus seemed to fulfil everything the Old Testament said about the Messiah,” he recalls, “But I was afraid. Judaism warns us about worshipping false idols. I prayed to God, ‘If Jesus is the Messiah, show me and I’ll believe, but please keep me from blasphemy.’”
Eventually, Joseph told his family that he believed in Jesus. The outcome was not good. “My father was very upset. He felt like I’d betrayed him and he basically didn’t speak to me for six years.” Things became more strained when Joseph moved to the UK and became a missionary to Jewish people.
Meanwhile, half a world away near Bethlehem, an adolescent Tanas was beginning to explore religion beyond his Greek Orthodox upbringing. “There are many Greek Orthodox priests in my family,” he explains, “But when I decided to trust and follow Jesus at age 16, they were supportive. They just wanted me to be happy.
“My parents were fairly open-minded and they never taught me to hate Israelis,” he continued. “In fact, my father would try to point out good things they had done.” But Tanas definitely had opportunity to become resentful. “I went to university in the US and when I returned it was 1991 and the Intifada had begun. I went out looking for a job, and was basically told it would be nearly impossible for me to find one.”
Says Tanas, “It is very easy for people to become hateful and bitter. But as Christians, we must love and respect people, and put ourselves in others’ places. Not only for ourselves but also so others can see this love is possible through Jesus.”
Not that this is simple. There are plenty of Palestinian and Israeli Christians who, although they share a common faith, remain divided over political and social issues. And some Christians who are not Jewish or Arab can be quick to take sides.
For both Tanas and Joseph, political and social issues in the Middle East are important, but their primary interest is in people, not politics.
“I don’t think we will see a lasting political solution to conflict in the Middle East in our lifetime,” says Tanas, “And so we must go beyond politics.”
Joseph agrees: “I truly believe that the only hope for peace in the Middle East is in the Prince of Peace, Jesus.”
Tanas and Joseph have each experienced this peace in their lives. But how did Tanas truly feel when he arrived at CMS to take on the post as Regional Manager for the Middle East and North Africa, only to find out that one of the CMS Directors is Jewish?
“I was so excited to meet him,” Tanas says, “It was like meeting a brother, someone from home.”
“The first time I met Tanas, we shook hands and hugged. Our immediate natural reaction to one another was to be warm and friendly. We had an instant connection.”
Joseph and Tanas soon discovered a shared passion for many things, especially sharing Jesus.
“I am so excited about the work Tanas is doing in the region,” Joseph says, “For example, he is bringing young Palestinians and Israelis together in the desert so they can get to know each other. The hope is that by allowing them to share their hopes and fears, they may be reconciled. This is having a tremendous impact.”
Tanas is likewise enthusiastic. “I’m excited to be working with Joseph, especially because I think that together we can show people that all things are possible with God – even people who ‘should’ be enemies can be friends. Yes, there is risk involved. People may not understand at first, but by having our primary identity in Jesus, not in our nationality, all things are possible.”
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