Mosque Moves Forward, Yet Church in Limbo

The battle raging over the Ground Zero mosque is bringing new attention to another, less publicized controversy involving a house of worship in Lower Manhattan. 

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which once sat right across the street from the World Trade Center, was crushed under the weight of the collapse of Tower Two on September 11, 2001. St. Nicholas was the only church to be lost in the attacks, and nine years later, while City of New York officials are busy removing every impediment to the building of the Cordoba mosque two blocks from the site, St. Nicholas’ future remains unclear.

The last bit of hopeful news for St. Nicholas came two years ago, in July 2008, when church officials and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced a deal which would have allowed the church to be rebuilt about two blocks from its original location.

The Port Authority agreed to give the church a parcel of land at Liberty and Greenwich Streets, and contribute $20 million toward construction of a new sanctuary. The Port Authority also agreed to build an explosion-proof platform and foundation for the new church building, which would sit on top of a screening area for cars and trucks entering the underground garages at the new World Trade Center.

Trouble emerged after St. Nicholas announced its plans to build a traditional Greek Orthodox church building, 24,000 square feet in size, topped with a grand dome. Port Authority officials told the church to cut back the size of the building and the height of the proposed dome, limiting it to rising no higher than the World Trade Center memorial. The deal fell apart for goodin March 2009, when the Port Authority abruptly ended the talks after refusing to allow church officials to review plans for the garage and screening area underneath. Sixteen months later, the two sides have still not met to resume negotiations.

St. Nicholas Church’s difficulty in getting approvals to rebuild stands in stark contrast to the treatment that the developers of the proposed Cordoba mosque have received. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, and a raft of city officials have all come out publicly in favor of building the mosque, and the city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission recently voted unanimously to deny protection to the building currently occupying the site where the mosque is to be built. 

The mosque is proposed to rise 13 stories, far above the height of the World Trade Center memorial, with no height restrictions imposed.

Inspired by former representative Vito Fossella (R-NY), Human Events and are sponsoring an online petition calling on New York officials to take action to stop the mosque from being built.

The contrast has not been lost on at least one candidate for Congress. George Demos is a Republican running in New York’s 1st Congressional District. Demos has made the Cordoba mosque an issue in his campaign, even though his district is on Eastern Long Island, and is highlighting the plight of St. Nicholas Church.

In an exclusive interview with Human Events, Demos had harsh words for the Port Authority, which he accuses of blocking the church from being rebuilt. “The Port Authority is a creation of Congress and should be answerable to two states [New York and New Jersey], but in reality is answerable to no one,” Demos said. “The Port Authority is insular and simply doesn’t care about public opinion. They are simply not making this a priority. Chris Ward is the Port Authority director and he is not allowing this to go forward.”

For its part, the Port Authority says it had no choice but to break off negotiations with the church to avoid delaying the World Trade Center project any longer. The authority said that the church retains the right to rebuild on its own at its original location. “We made an extraordinarily generous offer to resolve this issue and spent eight months trying to finalize that offer, and the church wanted even more on top of that,” Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Port Authority said last year. “They have now given us no choice but to move on to ensure the site is not delayed. The church continues to have the right to rebuild at their original site, and we will pay fair market value for the underground space beneath that building.”

Demos said it is the church that has been unjustly delayed. “One place of worship was destroyed in the attacks. That should be the first thing on that board’s agenda. That should be the first priority,” he said. “There were actually relics of St. Nicholas in that church that were lost in the attacks. Why is it that the same government officials who are so ferverently fighting for the mosque’s right to be built aren’t also fighting for the church to be rebuilt.”

Demos was critical of Mayor Bloomberg’s recent comments on the occasion of the Landmarks Commission vote. In a speech immediately following the vote, Bloomberg said, among other arguments, that allowing the mosque project to go forward would be a victory of sorts over the forces that attacked America on 9/11.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans,” Bloomberg said. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.”

Demos called those remarks “premature” and echoed New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio’s call for an investigation into the funding of the mosque. “We need to investigate sources of funding for the mosque. If in fact it is being funded by terrorist regimes, then it is the terrorists who are winning by building a mosque at Ground Zero,” Demos said. “Bloomberg’s comments only beg the question of why aren’t we investigating?”

Demos calls his district, currently represented by four-term Democrat Tim Bishop, a bellwether for Republicans in the fall elections. The district is a traditionally Republican seat, which President Obama narrowly won with 51% of the vote in 2008.
While Demos is focusing his campaign on the issues of jobs, government spending, and his opponent’s voting record—which he characterized as out of step with the district—he said that the plight of St. Nicholas Church is resonating with voters.

Recent polling in New York shows that a majority disagrees with the plan to build the mosque so close to Ground Zero. 
Asked what prompted him to take up St. Nicholas’s cause, Demos said the apparent favorable treatment the mosque’s developers received served to illuminate the issue to him as simply a question of right versus wrong.  

“This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of fair-minded candidates for office stepping up and doing the right thing. The focus should be something we can all agree on—getting the church rebuilt.”