Incessant Attacks on Jerusalem Church in Israel Meet with Police Indifference

Christians bloodied, bruised; car stolen.

Young men with ties to Palestinian militants attack volunteer workers at Living Bread Church on Oct. 16. (Morning Star News photo by Sarah Spaeth)

Young men with ties to Palestinian militants attack volunteer workers at Living Bread Church on Oct. 16. (Morning Star News photo by Sarah Spaeth)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – Police have refused to respond to a series of attacks on a church in East Jerusalem, including theft of a member’s car on Sunday (Nov. 2) and an assault in October that bloodied and bruised three Christians.

The attacks, driven by both intent to seize property and opposition to Christianity, have been mounted by young men with ties to Palestinian militants who for more than three months have been trying to force Living Bread Church from its rented building.

Church pastor Karen Dunham and others have filed at least eight police reports about the assaults. An Israeli citizen who is a Messianic Jew, Dunham’s attorney and others familiar with the situation said the local branch of the national police has done little to address the problem, while local government officials have joined in the harassment by citing the church for fabricated or trivial infractions.

Authorities “have their [the assailants’] pictures, they have their names, they even have their national ID numbers, and still they do nothing. They have tried everything not to help Karen,” said attorney Hussam Siam, adding that if a Jewish person or synagogue were attacked in the same way, the police response would be instantaneous and overwhelming.

“It would have been a more immediate response, and a more serious response,” Siam said. “Here, because we are talking about a church, the police are still standing by.”

Siam said there is “something fishy” with the way police have acted. The East Jerusalem police have the distinction within the Israeli police service of having a significant contingent of Palestinian officers, but the leadership of the department is made up mostly of Jews. The combination has led to indifference toward Dunham, according to Siam.

Danny Povolotski, an Israeli citizen and Messianic Jew who is helping Dunham seek justice, said the response would be different if Jews were the ones being attacked.

“If it was Jews, there would be choppers there and tanks,” he said. “I really believe most of the indifference of the police is because she’s not a Jew, she’s a Christian.”

Povolotski said that if Dunham were a Muslim, things would have been handled much differently as well, possibly through some sort of informal tribal council.

“It’s almost like everyone is deaf,” Povolotski said. “The level of brute force compared to the level of lack of response of the police force there is pretty shocking. To me it’s pretty shocking how it looks like a massive corruption thing going on there. It almost seems like if someone is going to go in and murder her, that no one is going to lift a finger.”

Multiple phone calls to the Shalem police station in East Jerusalem and the national press office for the Israeli police went unanswered.

While police have yet to take any action, local government officials, who in East Jerusalem are mostly Muslim, have pressured the church by citing it for trivial or concocted building infractions. At the same time, the officials have ignored the nearby flagrant violation of an illegally constructed building on unlawfully seized land, Dunham said.

Particularly galling to Dunham was a municipal official’s demand that she remove a cross that a volunteer had painted on the archway on the stonewall of the church building.

“I was told to remove graffiti because it was lowering the value of surrounding buildings, and I thought, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding. My neighbor is building a third story [on an illegally constructed building], there’s an illegal house sitting on my property, my fence is missing and he’s giving me a ticket for a cross on my door?”

Dunham complied with the order and painted over the crosses. But by the time the city official, a Palestinian, returned, unknown person had secretly painted new crosses over the old one, and she was cited. Dunham said the new crosses show that, at minimum, the local, Palestinian-run branch of the municipal government is giving information to those persecuting her congregation.

Her response was a less-than-conventional version of turning the other cheek that she said “disgusted” them.

“When they came over to give me the ticket, I held up the pictures of the guys attacking me,” she said.

In one incident, a low-level municipal employee was able to shut down repairs to the gate by claiming they were illegal because of the building’s historical status. Police and military guards dispatched to the church declined to verify the claims, and the repairs were halted. Dunham said she now has every possible permit she needs to repair the gate and will attempt to do so as soon as possible.

The attacks have been going on for several weeks. On Sept. 21, a Palestinian broke Dunham’s wrist when he shoved her to the ground after following her though the neighborhood around the church building. On Sept. 28, a Palestinian and a few adolescents assaulted a volunteer at the church as he emptied trash into a dumpster outside the church building. On Sept. 29, a group of men jumped onto the patio of the church building, broke or stole four security cameras and sprayed some type of riot spray into a church window.

In addition, people from the church have been spit on, hit with pepper spray or had urine thrown on them while they were on the church’s patio or outside walking near the church building.

U.S. Christians Assaulted

The most recent incident took place on Wednesday (Nov. 5), when the gas tank of a car owned by a church volunteer was filled with sugar. On Sunday (Nov. 2), Dunham discovered that a car owned by one of her family members had been stolen. And on Oct. 16, three U.S. Christians were injured in an attack as they attempted to repair a metal security door that, church members say, the Palestinian men had removed from its hinges in August.

The attack started at 11 a.m. when a crowd of about 10 men approached a stone wall separating the church building from a city street. Six men – armed with box cutters, sticks, clubs and pepper spray – walked through an archway in the wall where the metal security door was once welded and attacked volunteers who were gathered on a small patio making the repairs.

Joe Buonaiuto, 24, who is involved in a volunteer prayer ministry in Israel, was one of those on the patio.

“We were working there about 15 minutes, getting the first piece welded, when they came over,” said Buonaiuto, of West Virginia. “The first guy came in with a stick and mainly went after my friend Jake. And this guy was just yelling.”

The man hit Jake Tayler of Portales, New Mexico, squarely in the face with a broomstick. He fell backwards onto the pavement, and Buonaiuto rushed over, covered Tayler with his own body to shield him from further blows and received several hits himself.

Another one of the assailants began beating the volunteers with a thick extension cord, and yet another lunged at the workers, swinging a box cutter.

“I honestly… have no idea how I didn’t get cut,” Buonaiuto said. “I’m not sure if he didn’t swing down, or my back was turned.”

Buonaiuto said he suffered a large welt on his forehead when the man swinging the broom handle broke it over his head. He also had numerous bruises on his back and arms. Tayler had a bloody nose, a swollen mouth, a swollen ankle and various bruises. A third Christian was taken to a hospital and treated for a gash on his face; he was released the same day.

Buonaiuto said the attack happened so fast, that he and the others barely had time to respond.

“In the heat of the moment, I don’t remember having a huge sense of panic or fear,” he said. “It just happened so fast, I don’t remember having time to panic.”

Numerous items have been stolen from church property, including two storage sheds and various tools. Before the last confrontation, someone soaked the patio with gasoline, Dunham said. At times the attacks have left her a prisoner in her own home. Other staff members also have been too afraid to leave a church guesthouse.

“I usually have to have a car come right to the door, and I go from the church to the car, and I can’t walk around in East Jerusalem anymore,” Dunham said. “They’ve really robbed me of a lot.”

Perpetrator Motives

Dunham said the attacks were partially an attempt to seize land she rents and partially religious persecution to punish her for the church’s activities with the local population. In addition to telling others about the life of Jesus, Dunham oversees several programs to address the needs of the poor.

The building Dunham rents is strategically located outside the Damascus Gate of the old city of Jerusalem, in a highly visible commercial area on the main road that divides Arab East Jerusalem from an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.

Several months ago, a Palestinian who has purchased other property in the area entered into negotiations to buy the lot and submitted $40,000 in “earnest money” to the owners, according to Dunham and her lawyer. But the family who owns the property decided not to sell the land.

“So when they said no, this guy went wild,” Dunham said. “So they made an illegal house on one side of my property, and they seized the parking lot, and they tried to steal my porch. I never did anything, I just prayed, ‘Bless those who curse and revile you.’”

Dunham’s ministry is likely the only publically known expatriate evangelical church in East Jerusalem, and people come from all over the world to volunteer on projects her ministries run. She said there is a definite religious aspect to the attacks against her and the other members of her group.

“I think we got into a hornets’ nest, and it’s much bigger than us,” she said. “I think we are contending as watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem. We fed the poor, clothed the naked and give out the Word of God. I think we are contending for the gates of Jerusalem, because I think God wants to do something in Jerusalem.”

Povolotski said religion is playing a “huge factor” in what would otherwise probably be normal land dispute. Palestinian nationalism is also playing a part in inflaming sentiments about the property.

“Everything here is inseparable,” said Povolotski, who lives close to the neighborhood where Living Bread is located. “Everything is religious. Everything is non-religious. She’s a Christian, and people there are saying, ‘We don’t want her here. We want our people here.’ They want to put a Muslim there. It’s all mixed together – the Middle East is not as easy and compartmentalized as people think.”

Attorney Siam said a sense of “us versus them” and anti-Christian bigotry makes Dunham’s building an easy target. Most people in the neighborhood turn a blind eye toward the attacks.

“[It] being a church actually makes it easier to be more violent,” Siam said.

Siam confirmed that some of the people he has identified as participants in the attacks have been arrested in connection with an explosion of violence that has plagued East Jerusalem in recent weeks.

The alleged leader of the ring, Joseph Hawash, Siam said, has served 15 years in prison for various crimes. He is well known in East Jerusalem for being a former bodyguard of Yasser Arafat, chairmen of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian National Authority, until his death 10 years ago. Efforts to reach Hawash for comment were unsuccessful.

How to Respond

Regarding official indifference, recently there seemed to be a turning point with local authorities that might have led to the door being replaced and the security fence being repaired when some Israelis got involved and talked with members of the police force. They also approached some of the men who were threatening the church.

The efforts were later shown to be in vain.

After the latest attack, according to Dunham, Messianic Jewish men who are not members of Living Bread told some of the assailants that they were to consider them part of the congregation, bluntly adding, “This church is under our protection. If you fight with this church and you hurt these women and children, we’re going to call the police, and the police are going do something, because they will be here because of us,” according to Dunham.

“They were very bold, these young Israelis,” she said.

From the beginning, members of the church had to decide how to assert or defend themselves in a way that followed their spiritual principles. Buonaiuto said that when he was walking to the church building on the morning of the attack, he knew he wanted to make a stand to follow the teachings of Christ.

“I just knew I wanted to act with gentleness instead of responding with anger,” he said. “As we were walking over there, about five minutes away from the church, God kind of dropped a Scripture on my heart, ‘… like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’”

Christians believe the verse Buonaiuto cited, Isaiah 53:7, foretells the way Jesus responded to the violent oppression and injustice that led up to His execution.

Buonaiuto said he told his fellow Christians, “Just in case they come over and start yelling at us today or anything flares up, I just want us to respond in an opposite spirit.”

“It was in our hearts not to respond in violence but in a spirit of compassion,” Buonaiuto said. “I think when you are beating someone and they are not retaliating back with the same spirit, that instantly draws them into, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ in their heart.”

After the assault, Buonaiuto and Tayler went to file a police report. They saw one of their assailants sitting in a chair, walked up to him, introduced themselves, asked his name and shook his hand. Then they said, “We forgive you.”

“We told him we just want you to know that we forgive you and we’ll be praying for you,” Buonaiuto said.

The man was moved.

“Those are the moments when they look back to you. When they encountered someone who wasn’t retaliating with violence and who is of another world because that’s what the world does – if someone punches you, you punch back,” Buonaiuto said. “But those are the moments where Christ is displayed through you, and that’s the testimony that sticks with them when they think back.”

Dunham said that maintaining a sense of forgiveness is a struggle that requires a conscious choice every day.

“We are suffering blow after blow after blow, and we keep carrying them [the attackers] to the Throne of Grace like they are long-lost relatives,” she said. “And then the Lord makes us stand before him every morning and say we chose from the Throne of Grace to release forgiveness for these guys. We choose to forgive them.”

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