Published August 18, 2010
Greek Orthodox leaders trying to rebuild the only church destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks expressed shock this week after learning, via Fox News, that government officials had killed a deal to relocate the church.
The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, once a tiny, four-story building in the shadows of lower Manhattan, was destroyed in 2001 by one of the falling World Trade Center towers. Nobody from the church was hurt in the attack, but the congregation has, for the past eight years, been trying to rebuild its house of worship.
Though talks between the church and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey stalled last year, church leaders say they've been trying to kick-start discussions ever since. But amid debate over whether a proposed Islamic community center should go forward near Ground Zero, government officials threw cold water on the prospect of any deal with the church -- telling Fox News the deal is off the table.
Confronted with the Port Authority's verdict, Father Mark Arey, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said it's the first he's heard that.
"Negotiations did break off last year. We were expecting to hear from their lawyers -- we never did. We're still expecting to hear from them," he told Fox News. "We're disappointed. ... 130 Liberty Street was promised to us."
Arey was referring to the address, about 100 yards away from the original site, where the government earlier proposed relocating the church. 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 the church -- in addition, the authority was willing to pay up to $40 million to construct a bomb-proof platform underneath.
Within a year, the deal fell through and talks ended -- apparently for good, according to the Port Authority.
The archdiocese and Port Authority now offer sharply conflicting accounts of where things went wrong. The Port Authority has claimed the church was making additional demands -- like wanting the $20 million up front and wanting to review plans for the surrounding area. They say the church can still proceed on its own if it wishes.
"St. Nicholas Orthodox Church has always had and will continue to have the right to rebuild on its original location. The question was whether public money would be spent to build a much larger church at a separate location on the site and ensuring that construction wouldn't delay the World Trade Center further," spokesman Stephen Sigmund said in a written statement. "On that question, we worked for many years to reach an agreement and offered up to 60 million dollars of public money to build that much larger new church. After reaching what we believed was an agreement in 2008, representatives of the church wanted even more public commitments, including unacceptable approvals on the design of the Vehicle Security Center that threatened to further delay the construction on the World Trade Center and the potential for another $20 million of public funds."
Sigmund said the "final offer" was made last year, which again included $60 million.
"They rejected that offer," he said.
But Arey said the original site is no good. And archdiocese officials disputed the Port Authority's claims, saying the church has complied with all conditions.
"It's not about money," Arey said. He expressed hope that the project can still be salvaged.
"This little church deserves to be rebuilt. It's symbolic, not just for Orthodox Christians, not just for Christians, but for all Americans," Arey said, calling the mosque debate "helpful" to the church's cause. "I believe that people around the country are asking themselves the question -- why all this talk about a mosque being built near Ground Zero? What about a little church that was destroyed on 9/11? ... This is basically a bureaucratic impasse. This will dissolve in the face of the American public consciousness."
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who worked with the church as governor, told Fox News on Tuesday that the church should be rebuilt.
George Demos, a Republican candidate for New York's 1st Congressional District, also has drawn attention to the negotiations. He released an open letter to President Obama Tuesday urging him to, as he did with the mosque debate, weigh in on the church discussions.
"While we may disagree on the appropriateness of the mosque, we can surely agree that it is an issue of national importance that the only house of worship actually destroyed on September 11, 2001, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, be rebuilt," Demos wrote. "Mr. President, 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."
Father Alex Karloutsos, assistant to the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Demetrios, told FoxNews.com that the Port Authority "simply forgot about the church" at Ground Zero.
Fox News' David Lee Miller and Kathleen Foster and FoxNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.