On Christmas, police (briefly) return Jerusalem church desecrated by Palestinians

Palestinians who claim the building had taken over the site by force, ransacking it and burning some of its contents; dispute goes to court on Tuesday

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Pastor of the Jerusalem Living Bread Church, Karen Dunham (Karen Dunham)
Pastor of the Jerusalem Living Bread Church, Karen Dunham (Karen Dunham)

Israeli police on Sunday, Christmas Day, expelled Palestinian men and their guard dogs from the premises of an East Jerusalem church they had taken over by force and desecrated.

The police were seeking to return the property to the pastor of the Jerusalem Living Bread Church, Karen Dunham. But the Palestinians, who claim the building is theirs, later returned to the church with a restraining order for the pastor, and the dispute is set to go to court on Tuesday.

Dunham told The Times of Israel on Monday that she and her staff have faced a campaign of violence and intimidation for more than two and half years from a group of men who claim ownership over the building.

In late November, while the church was empty during the day, some of these men broke in; changed the locks; stole valuables, including eight laptops, three desktops and all the cash; and trashed the building. When Dunham returned the next day, she found some of the church’s belongings burning in a dumpster outside.

“It looked like a bomb had gone off in the building,” Dunham said.

Video taken by Israel’s Channel 10, which first reported the story on Sunday, showed guard dogs, left by those who took over the property, barking at police. It also showed the cross at the entrance to the building painted over, with the Islamic statement “God Is Great” sprayed in Arabic across the front door and along the exterior walls of the building.

But while Dunham and her staff were upset by damage to their church, the pastor said she and her 30-person-strong staff have faced far worse.

“About two years ago, they beat me until there was no breath left in me and left me for dead in front of the Church,” Dunham said.

The conflict began around two and a half years ago, when Dunham refused to relinquish her lease to the land.

Pastor of the Jerusalem Living Bread Church, Karen Dunham (Courtesy)
Pastor of the Jerusalem Living Bread Church, Karen Dunham (Courtesy)

She explained the original deed to the land gives control of the property to 16 members of one family. She said she signed a 20-year lease in 2007, with an option for 10 more years, with 15 members of the family for 96 percent of the property. The dozen or so neighbors who claim the church, according to Dunham, have a claim to the other 4% of the property.

Dunham’s beating was just one in a long list of violent acts she and her staff have faced, including, she said, an attempt to gas them out of the building.

Until recently, two Jewish orphans with Down Syndrome were living in the building. Dunham said some of her attackers threatened to cut their heads off.

Over the past few years, the pastor has reported the attacks against her, her staff and the church to police in East Jerusalem, but said she was met with apathy.

“In East Jerusalem, when we would go to make a police report, even the night everything was burning, we said they are robbing and burning our stuff, and they said call us tomorrow, we are busy.”

The Jerusalem Living Bread Church was ransacked by vandals in November, 2016 (Screen capture: YouTube)
The Jerusalem Living Bread Church was ransacked by vandals who stole church possessions and left them on fire inside a nearby dumpster in November, 2016 (Screen capture: YouTube)

Dunham said what led to what she called her “Christmas miracle” in Jerusalem was the personal involvement of East Jerusalem Chief Superintendent Nisso Guetta.

When they met on Christmas Day, she said the police chief told her he “will do everything in his power to change the cesspool of violence and corruption” in the primarily Arab half of the city.

“During nine years living in East Jerusalem, I’ve never seen someone react like this,” she said, referring to Guetta’s passion for her case.

That day, Dunham returned to her church with the help of police. But hours later, she said the men who claim ownership of the building arrived from court with a restraining order, temporarily banishing her from the property.

The men had accused the pastor and her staff of ruining the building themselves, she said.

Dunham’s case will be heard in court on Tuesday, she said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed