A land dispute between a church and Arab residents of a Jerusalem neighborhood has devolved into chronic violence, theft, and harassment against the church’s employees, including two disabled orphans living there, its pastor said Sunday.
According to Karen Dunham, pastor and director of Living Bread International Church – a non-denominational institution with offices in Jerusalem, Gaza and Jericho – the church has been housed in Musrara for seven years, with 20 years remaining on its lease.
Dunham said a campaign of violence and intimidation against the church’s 45 employees, visitors and two Jewish orphans with Down’s Syndrome living there, was undertaken by roughly a dozen Arab neighbors several months ago after she refused to sell the property.
“When we said we would not sell it, they decided to take it by force,” she said.
The men have stolen two of the church’s parking spaces, a metal security fence protecting its entrance, eight security cameras, threatened the two disabled orphans, and have assaulted nine of the church’s employees and visitors, including herself, she said.
“Over the last three months they have built an illegal house in the parking lot over the parking spaces included in our lease, and over the last two-and-a-half weeks attacked us, stole our security fence and attempted to take our front door,” she said.
Dunham said the Arab men have sprayed a gas-like substance into the 200-sq.m. church – which oversees numerous programs dedicated to reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, community outreach and tours for international visitors – on two occasions.
During the first instance, the pastor said, responding officers issued four restraining orders but did not make any arrests.
Moreover, despite identifying the assailants, filing eight police reports and obtaining the restraining orders, Dunham said police have done virtually nothing to protect the church and its employees.
“We even took pictures of them during attacks and [we were] able to identify them using Facebook, but after filing the first two or three police reports I realized nothing was happening,” she said. “They [the assailants] continued to sit outside [the church] and harass us.”
Dunham said she was punched in her back a couple weeks ago by one of the men while walking on the property’s front porch, resulting in a fractured wrist that required a cast, and that the two disabled orphans were told by one suspect that he would “cut their heads off.”
After going to an east Jerusalem police station, Dunham said Arab officers ostensibly turned her away.
“They told me, ‘You can’t come here every day,’” she said.
“Some Jewish officers apologized and told me to make sure they didn’t close my file.”
The violence came to a head 10 days ago, Dunham said, when several visitors of the church who volunteered to replace the stolen metal fence were physically attacked, had NIS 3,200 worth of welding equipment stolen, and were gassed when they took refuge in the church.
“These guys came at us like wild bears,” she said of the attack. “They jumped the fence, busted through the porch door and gassed us again. They just unleashed hell on these visitors who came here to help me repair what was stolen.”
While Dunham said she has not filed a formal complaint about the illegal housing construction on the church’s two parking spaces, she said she insists that the attacks against the church and its employees and visitors ceases.
“They’re taking over the whole area, buying properties all over from funding from the Palestinian Authority,” she said.
Last Thursday, police, accompanied by IDF soldiers, finally came to oversee the safety of a contractor attempting to rebuild the fence, Dunham said. However, the officers and soldiers left after an Arab man claimed that it was illegal to repair the fence because it is a “historical building,” she added.
“This man had no authority, but they just left,” she said. “It was wild.”
As a result, Dunham said she is attempting to get permission from the Jerusalem Municipality to rebuild the fence, but that the harassment and threats have continued.
“Nine people, including me, have been injured so far, including one man who was hospitalized,” she said of the attacks.
“The last couple of weeks is when most of the violence has happened, and now they are not allowing our staff to walk in the street to get to and from work.”
Dunham added: “The other day they told my secretary that it was time for me to be beaten up again.”
A police spokesman said Sunday that officers will review the complaints filed by Dunham and respond accordingly.sign up to our newsletter