Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ground Zero: Mosques, Churches, and Shared Interests

A few days ago, I wrote this post about the uproar over building a mosque and community center near the 9/11 "ground zero" site in New York City. Frequent commenter Marcus pointed out that another religious institution, St. Nicholas Church, a small Greek Orthodox community, has spent much of the last nine years trying to get their church rebuilt alongside the "ground zero" site.

The talks between the church and local government authorities have broken down over the past year. A year and a half ago, the New York Times reported the following

In July [2008],the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church announced a tentative plan to rebuild the church just east of its original site, at Liberty and Greenwich Streets. The authority agreed to provide the church with land for a 24,000-square-foot house of worship, far larger than the original, and $20 million. Since the church would be built in a park over the bomb-screening center, the authority also agreed to pay up to $40 million for a blast-proof platform and foundation.

In recent negotiations, the authority cut the size of the church slightly and told church officials that its dome could not rise higher than the trade center memorial. The church, in turn, wanted the right to review plans for both the garage with the bomb-screening center and the park, something the authority was unwilling to provide. More important, authority officials said, the church wanted the $20 million up front, rather than in stages. Officials said they feared that the church, which has raised about $2 million for its new building, would come back to the authority for more.

I have to say I find this story complicated. It brings up all kinds of issues around how the whole "ground zero" site has been treated since 2001, and how many people who suffered there on that day have experienced various forms of injustices.

When it comes to the St. Nicholas project, here are a few issues that come up for me.

First off, the $60 million offered by the Port Authority back in 2008 for the building project. I am against government funding for religious institutions. We already provide religious institutions tax free status, and many (mostly Christian) religious communities have and continue to garner millions of tax dollars through the Faith Based Initiatives Office started by former President George Bush and expanded under current President Barack Obama. So, I find the $60 million offer for a single church building troubling. And I will also say this, if there is any government funding being put towards the controversial mosque and community center project, I stand against it. Maybe there is some justification for helping to fund the rebuilding of St. Nicholas, given it's demise in the 9/11 attacks, a highly unusual event. But how much, and in what ways exactly? I'm not sure.

Secondly, St. Nicholas Church has been taken up by the same people who are spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and trying to shut down the mosque and community center project. New York Congressional candidate George Demos recently used the church's conflict with the Port Authority as a rallying point against Islam, suggesting that "Judeo-Christian values are under attack in our nation" because city officials have supported the mosque project, but continue to block the St. Nicholas project. This is the kind of sickening drama and hate mongering that pisses me off. I don't see any evidence that leaders of St. Nicholas are desiring this kind of press, but it's sad that their church is being used to spread bullshit anti-Muslim propaganda.

Third, there are some questions about the nearly $3 million raised by the church community for the rebuilding project. A few months ago, the President of St. Nicholas' Parish Council resigned. Although the resignation was due to health reasons, John Pitsikalis repeatedly questioned where some of the monies donated to the church were going during his tenure as President. Sound familiar? One of the major issues people have been bringing up with the mosque and community center project is its funding. Millions of dollars from unspecified sources in Saudi Arabia. Large sums of money and religious institutions/spiritual organizations seem to have trouble going together in an "above board" kind of way, don't they? The Zen community need only look to Salt Lake City, Utah to find their own highly questionable funding practices.

Marcus kind of challenged me to publish a post about St. Nicholas, partly to see if I am a one trick pony about supporting religious institutions.

Well, actually, when it comes to religious institutions in general, even Buddhist centers, I find myself unsure how to approach them. I've written a lot of posts about being on my zen center's board, and taking a leadership role there. I continue to do this work, enjoying being able to contribute to our community's flourishing. At the same time, I have an ingrained distrust of institutions, especially large ones with excessive amounts of money and bureaucracy.

So, when I write that I am in support of the mosque project for example, it is due to a solidarity towards people who have suffered longstanding persecution in my nation. It is not because I'm terribly enamored with the institution they want to build.

And so, I can say a similar thing about St. Nicholas. Being the church of a small, fairly recent immigrant group (most Greeks have come to the U.S. in the last 100 years), I find myself sympathetic to their cause. Given that their religious community was destroyed in the devastating 9/11 attacks, I want to see them back on their feet, if only because the return of their community would be another sign of renewal.

In fact, it actually could be quite remarkable if the leaders of St. Nicholas paired with the leaders of the mosque project, and spoke out against hatred, and in support of their respective religious communities' needs. Perhaps, the necessary funding and local support might come through on both sides as a result of the good will expressed on both sides.

My guess is that each group will continue to toil on their own. Clearly, the circumstances of each situation are very different, but they do share the bond of being religious institutions that are part of the ground zero rebuilding controversy.

Update: I just saw the comments from New York Mayor Bloomberg and the decision to remove the final sticking point blocking the project. Might make the partnering up talk I spoke about moot.


Adam said...

I have to wonder what the two really have in common. The church will probably be rebuilt. But the issue isn't their religion, the issue is that they are dealing with the Port Authority of NY/NJ. This is an issue of beaurocracy, not one of religous freedom, suffering, or anti-religous sentitment. And it seems (as it usually does when negotiations like this break down) that both sides are partly to blame.

The issue of the community center (NOT MOSQUE as Algernon was kind enough to point out) is clearly a much different one. And I hate to be a nit-picker, but Marcus tried equating the Cordoba site with ground zero, which it isn't, especially when you look at the map. Ground zero is where towers 1 and 2 were. The cordoba site is 2-2 1/2 blocks away.

There is a McDonalds, Starbucks, discount fragrence store, "plaza nails", Shalom Task Force, and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church that are all closer to the actual site of ground zero. Saying that the 1-3 block radius of ground zero is somehow "sacred ground" is absolutely ridiculous at this point. The site in and of itself is one thing, but the rest of the area is just part of Lower Manhattan, as it was before the attacks and as it should be after the attacks.

I do agree with both of you, in that religous organizations such as this need more transparency in terms of where they get their capital, and how it is spent.

Nathan said...


I agree with you that these two cases are really different. I felt it was still worth presenting some of facts as I could find them - given that these two institutions are being linked together by some folks, rightly or wrongly.

In my post I used the phrase "mosque and community center" because the building is planned to contain both elements. That still might not cut it, but it seemed more accurate than eliminating the word mosque or just using the word mosque. Sad that I have to sit and think so much about the proper use of the word "mosque," knowing that if not used carefully, it just adds to the negative dialogue out there.

Adam said...

It is sad, and I don't think you've added to the negative dialogue out there. However, it seems as though people (not you) are largely unaware that the building is going to be more than just some giant tower of worship dedicated to Allah.

I also used the word mosque in my post about this. I knew that it was more than that, but as Algernon has pointed out here (and on my blog) it's really only going to be a small part of it, something that I was unaware of, even after looking through mulitple sources before I wrote my post.

I wonder if people will still be upset 10 years after the center is built?

Algernon said...

It is an interesting case, and you are doing a sensible job of sorting human needs from institutional needs. For instance, the desire to see this congregation survive the damage to their building, as compared to the needs of an institution. I am also troubled at the prospect of government putting up cash to repair or rebuild churches.

I've also struggled in my posts about Cordoba House as to how to describe it. I've been erring on the side of community center or Islamic center, since a mosque (which might end up being an interfaith chapel instead) is only part of a much larger project they want to build. Calling the whole project a "mosque" struck me as playing to the fears and prejudice that are playing out on the street. But that was just my choice as a writer.

Nathan said...

"I wonder if people will still be upset 10 years after the center is built?"

Yeah, that's a good question.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

Thank you for your support of the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Church.

It is, I think, very sad that the congregation of this historic Christian Church, crushed in 9-11, is still having to meet together in a tent.

As for Adam's point regarding the nature of the mega-mosque, there is no doubt that the building will contain a mosque (and not a church and not a temple etc) and its community facilities will be geared towards the Muslim community (thus the funding from a country in which all other religions than Islam are illegal).

As to whether or not is is part of ground zero - on September 11, 2001 the landing-gear assembly from one of the planes in the terrorist attack crashed through its roof and down through its floors - putting it more or less out of use until today.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, said he wanted this building precisely because of the significance of its location “where a piece of the wreckage fell".

So yes, it IS a mosque (funded by Sadia Arabia), it IS on the site of the 9-11 attacks (and purchased precisely because of that reason) and now it has got permission to be built.

Meanwhile, a tiny Christian Church, with ownership of the land stretching back nearly a century, is still waiting.

Thank you Nathan for pointing out the plight of St. Nicholas' in this post.

Marcus _/\_

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

A final thought...

In essence I think we kind of agree with eachother! Like i said in my first comment on all this, if this new mega-mosque was a locally funded multi-faith community centre then I'd not only have no problem with the idea, I think it'd be a great and appropriate project for the site.

There might even be, as you suggest, ways of combining the needs and aspirations of both the projects into one in some kind of way.

But, as things stand, it looks to me like New York has made the awful decision of allowing a Saudi-backed mega-mosque to be built on the site of 9-11 while denying the legitimate needs of a historic Christian community at the site.

But, yes, let's hope the church gets rebuilt and that, in ten years time, all this will have been just a storm in a teacup.

Thanks again

Marcus _/\_

Nathan said...


Funding issues plague a lot of non-profit institutions in the U.S. right now, secular or religious. It's just not that easy to get money right now, unless you are a big fish organization.

The difference between you and I, perhaps, is that I'm not terribly suspicious of the motives of the Cordoba House folks. The space around Ground Zero should be open to churches, mosques, temples, secular organizations - whomever.

And while I agree with you that the lack of transparency in terms of funding for the Cordoba project is an issue, almost no one ever questions the origins of funding for large, multinational corporate buildings, or evangelical mega churches, just to give two examples. They are given complete passes, while any group associated with Islam is considered suspect from the get go.

Obviously, the opposite is true in Saudi Arabia - any non-Islamic group is considered suspect from the get go. But I don't support repeating such behavior, and think that calls for transparency should be about all groups, not just certain minority groups that aren't "in favor."

One of the reasons I chose to feature St. Nicholas in a post is that I feel the response to 9/11 in general has been pretty destructive, and we haven't, as a nation, figured out how to grow from it. Instead of working together to help rebuild communities and shed old hatreds and prejudices, there's a hell of a lot of side taking, posturing, and financial brokering in service of maintaining the status quo.

As a result, places like St. Nicholas remain broken, and organizations like the Cordoba House folks are smeared as terrorist proxies over and over again. It's a hell of a lot of unnecessary suffering if you ask me.


Algernon said...

"the response to 9/11 in general has been pretty destructive, and we haven't, as a nation, figured out how to grow from it. Instead of working together to help rebuild communities and shed old hatreds and prejudices, there's a hell of a lot of side taking, posturing, and financial brokering in service of maintaining the status quo."

Hear, hear.

Lucky Archer - Λάκης Βελώτρης said...

Athens Archbishop Christodoulos said we deserved 9/11 (ISBN 960-252-007-8). Greeks must not be allowed to revive their tsar-build islamo-soviet temple on world trade center sacred ground! Greece has always been a state conduit of islamosoviet terrorism. They don't let us preach the Gospel in their land, so why should they have temples here? On the Thursday before Easter Greeks chant pogrom inciting Beatitudes against "godslaying lawless Jews"in Greek, but change it to "Assemby of Jews" in English. They removed American Archbishop Iakovos because he was too American and Jerusalem Patriarch Irineos because he was too friendly with Israelis. Old witches who used to work at diners until they dropped now slip "Elder Protocols" and other terror claptrap in the pews. When I was growing up priests, would bathe, shave, wear pants - Robed, bearded, stovetopped priest is terror sympathist by definition. Greece was only euronation not to vote for 1947 Israel creation. In such time of war, we should insist that any public assembly of more than ten mandatorily be only in English! We have freedom of worship and speech, but not language. These heathen necromantic iconolaters have the nerve to ban Psalm 150 organs? America was always Judeo-centric. Columbus set sail with shiploads of Jews the day after the Spanish Inquisition expelled Jews. The Plymouth Pilgrims were followers of Cromwell who brought the Jews back to England. God helps those who help the Jews.