ST NICHOLAS SLUMBERING AMIDST THE RUBBLE
A four-story building in the shadows of lower Manhattan, the building that came to house the church was built around 1832. In 1916, Greek immigrants established the parish of Saint Nicholas and in 1922 started to hold worship services at the Liberty Street location. The church building was only 6.7 m wide, 17 m long, and 11 m tall and was easily dwarfed by the 110 storey Twin Towers, which were completed in 1972 and 1973. Despite its small size and unusual location, the church had before the attacks a dedicated congregation of about 70 families led by Father John Romas. On Wednesdays, the building was opened to the public and many people, including office workers from the towers and non-Greek Orthodox, would enter the quiet worship space for contemplation and prayer.
Among the church's most valuable physical possessions were some of the relics of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Sava, which had been donated to the church by Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. These relics were removed from their safe on holy days for veneration; tragically, they were never recovered after the attack.
Parish faithful have been waiting for eight years in order to rebuild the historic church as a symbol of faith, freedom, renewal and reconciliation. Unfortunately, despite negotiations with government authorities, amid debate over whether a proposed Islamic community centre should go forward near Ground Zero, government officials have recently thrown cold water on the prospect of any deal with the church.
This insensitive refusal, contradicts a litany of plans and promises that would have seen the construction of a new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church quite close to the original location. The church was again to house a worshipping congregation. A museum was also projected to be built for the projected large influx of visitors that will come to the site.
On July 23, 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reached a deal with the leaders of the church for the Port Authority to acquire the 110 m2 lot that the church had occupied for $20 million.
The Port Authority and the church announced a deal in July 2008 under which the Port Authority would grant land and up to $20 million to help rebuild it in a new location – in addition, the authority was willing to pay up to $40 million to construct a bomb-proof platform underneath. After the initial excitement, the plan appears to have been shelved and then cancelled by the Port Authority.
In July, George Demos, a Republican Congressional Candidate, first brought the failure to rebuild St. Nicholas Church into the American national debate, claiming that the Executive Director of the Port Authority, Chris Ward, had not made the rebuilding of St. Nicholas a top priority. Just a few weeks ago, Demos launched a petition on his website calling on the Port Authority to rebuild the church. On 23rd August, former new York Governor George Pataki joined Demos at a press conference to call on the Port Authority to reopen talk with officials from the Church.
The stalemate is generating considerable public attention due to heated protests over Park 51, a proposed Islamic community centre several blocks away that has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by critics.
"St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn't be there, that's a whole different dialogue," said Father Mark Arey, spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. "But it's a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?"
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Port Authority offer sharply conflicting accounts of where things went wrong. By late 2008, St. Nicholas and the Port Authority had reached a tentative agreement for the church to give up its 1,200-square-foot site at 155 Cedar Street in exchange for 130 Liberty Street, a bigger site half a block away.
Six months later, the Port Authority said negotiations ended because St. Nicholas demanded too much money and approval power over a vehicle security centre beneath the sites. Port Authority spokesman Stephen Sigmund said the church can return to its original location.
"In 2009, we made our final offer, which again included up to $60 million in public money, and told St. Nicholas Orthodox Church that the World Trade Centre could not be delayed over this issue," he said in a written statement. "They rejected that offer."
Father Mark, on the other hand, maintains that negotiations were in the final stages, with the church "acting in good faith," when the Port Authority suddenly stopped returning calls. Father Alex has labelled the Port Authority's claims "propaganda" and said the church has complied with all conditions. He said the government should honor agreements that date back to 2004, under former New York Governor George Pataki.
It is imperative that consensus is reached so that the historic church of St Nicholas is rebuilt. The symbolic meaning of such a gesture is high. Quite apart from its importance to the Greek American community, more than any other Christian denomination, it is Orthodox Christianity that has influenced and established a millenia-long dialogue and interaction with Islam. More Orthodox Christians reside in the Middle East, among those professing the Islamic faith, than any other Christian denomination and the Orthodox of this region have fostered a unique understanding and symbiosis with Islam, under inordinately difficult conditions, that the West would do well to study and emulate. The re-erection of this church of tolerance will send the message that Christianity and Islam can co-exist within a climate of peace and tolerance.
It is to be hoped that whatever administrative or other decisions that have hampered the rebuilding of the church up until now are not linked to the current debate about the wisdom of Barack Obama’s support for the construction of the Ground Zero mosque nearby. One can understand the disquiet by both sides: After all, some Jewish groups have expressed objections to the placement of Christian crosses at Auschwitz on the grounds that the Holocaust was a crime perpetrated by Christians against Jews. Similarly, the erection of a Christian church at the site of a massacre of Muslims by Christians (wherever and if ever such a site exists), would certainly offend many Muslims, who would find it difficult to understand, in the wake of the stench of brutality, arguments as to freedom of religion. The countless Christian churches in the Middle East historically converted into mosques as a precursor to centuries long persecution, or recently vandalised and destroyed, however, is barely considered in the debate.
Nonetheless, the re-building of St Nicholas has nothing to do with this weighty debate. The parish has been in existence for almost one hundred years and it forms an inseparable part of the warp and weft of the rich cultural tapestry that is the City of New York. Indeed, it is imperative that consensus is reached so that the historic church of St Nicholas is rebuilt speedily. The symbolic meaning of such a gesture is high. Quite apart from its importance to the Greek American community, more than any other Christian denomination, it is Orthodox Christianity that has influenced and established a millenia-long dialogue and interaction with Islam. More Orthodox Christians reside in the Middle East, among those professing the Islamic faith, than any other Christian denomination and the Orthodox of this region have fostered a unique understanding and symbiosis with Islam, under inordinately difficult conditions, that the West would do well to study and emulate. The re-erection of this church of tolerance will send the message that Christianity and Islam can co-exist within a climate of peace and tolerance. At least, let us hope so.