Special Report

Where St. Nicholas Once Stood

Shouldn't the rebuilding of a Greek Orthodox church at Ground Zero have priority over construction of an Islamic Center?

By 9.9.10

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With all the talk of building a mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center, how many of you knew there was a church that once stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center? And how many of you knew this same church was destroyed on September 11, 2001?

I must confess that until a few weeks ago I wasn't aware that a church was among the property that was leveled in Lower Manhattan that Tuesday morning. When the South Tower collapsed, it took St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with it. All that remained were two religious icons and handful of liturgical items. Fortunately, no one was inside St. Nicholas at the time of the collapse. But what had been the center of the Greek Orthodox community in New York City for nearly eighty years was wiped out in a matter of seconds.

Under the circumstances, one would think a house of worship would be rebuilt forthwith. How many religious institutions in America are destroyed as a result of an act of terrorism? Imagine for a moment that on September 11, 2001, a mosque had been destroyed in the vicinity of the World Trade Center. Don't you think heaven and earth would have been moved to rebuild that mosque? Yet nine years later, not an inch of brick or mortar has been laid down to rebuild St. Nicholas.

As the City of New York was approving plans for the construction of the Ground Zero Mosque, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey jettisoned a deal that would have permitted the rebuilding of St. Nicholas. Of course, the Ground Zero Mosque has powerful allies with the likes of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama both of whom expressed their support for the mosque as a matter of religious freedom. Yet where were Mayor Bloomberg's tears for St. Nicholas? What does President Obama have to say about the right of the Greek Orthodox community "to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan"?

Despite the obfuscation of Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama, not to mention the obstinacy of the Port Authority, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is not without friends. None has been more vocal than George Demos, a former prosecutor with the Securities and Exchange Commission, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for New York's 1st Congressional District. (The GOP primary takes place on September 14 and among his competitors is Christopher Nixon Cox, grandson of the late President Nixon.)

Demos made people sit up and take notice when he issued a statement that read, "Rebuild the Church at Ground Zero, Not a Mosque." He subsequently wrote an open letter to President Obama calling on him to "please stand up and defend our Judeo-Christian values, express your public and unwavering support for St. Nicholas Church, and ensure that it is rebuilt." As of this writing, President Obama has not responded to Demos' letter either privately or publicly. However, Demos has been able to enlist the support of former New York Governor George Pataki as well as Tim Bishop, the incumbent Democratic Congressman who will be Demos' opponent in November if he wins the GOP primary next week. Demos has posted an online petition to gather signatures in support of rebuilding St. Nicholas (to which I have affixed my signature).

Earlier this week, Demos took a few minutes away from his busy campaign to speak with me over the phone. Demos, who is Greek Orthodox, reserved most of his displeasure for the Port Authority. He described it as an entity awash in "bureaucratic inertia" and "answerable to no one." He also expressed disappointment with New York Governor David Paterson. Specifically, he took Paterson to task for his appointment of Chris Ward as executive director of the Port Authority. Rebuilding St. Nicholas has not been a priority for Ward, Demos pointed out, and he remains unwilling to meet with church officials.

Regardless of the outcome of the GOP primary, Demos also told me that he would continue to speak out on behalf of St. Nicholas. "This isn't a political issue. This isn't a partisan issue. It is an issue that speaks to our Judeo-Christian values," Demos said. However, he added that if he were to be the nominee and ultimately win election to Congress, he would have "a bigger platform" from which to support the reconstruction of St. Nicholas.

If you're looking for a way to engage in civic action on September 11 more meaningful than throwing copies of the Koran into a bonfire, you might consider lending your support to the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. A donation of your time, money, or other materials will be welcome. Donations can be sent to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, P.O. Box 340968, Brooklyn, New York 11234.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.