NEW YORK – Supporters of a Greek Orthodox church destroyed on Sept. 11 say officials willing to speak out about a planned community center and mosque near ground zero have been silent on efforts to get the church rebuilt.
But the World Trade Center site's owner says a deal to help rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was offered and rejected, after years of negotiations, over money and other issues.
Though the projects are not related, supporters — including George Pataki, New York's governor at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks — have questioned why public officials have not addressed St. Nicholas' future while they lead a debate on whether and where the Islamic cultural center should be built.
"What about us? Why have they forgotten or abandoned their commitment to us?" asked Father Alex Karloutsos, assistant to the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. "When I see them raising issues about the mosque and not thinking about the church that was destroyed, it does bother us."
In an effort to deal with the furor over the planned location of the Islamic center, Gov. David Paterson has suggested that state land farther away from ground zero be used. He was scheduled to meet with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan on Tuesday to discuss the Park51 project, which is planned for two blocks north of the 16-acre World Trade Center site.
"Rather than focus his attention on the mosque, Gov. Paterson should step in right away to ensure that the state of New York and the Port Authority uphold the agreement with the Greek Orthodox church so this project can go forward without further delay," state Sen. Dean Skelos said Monday.
Paterson declined to comment on the issue.
The 300-member congregation lost its 90-year-old parish just south of the World Trade Center when the twin towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving only a handful of artifacts that were removed from the rubble, including a small bell and cross, a crucifix and wax candles that had not melted.
Leaders of the church and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the agency that owns ground zero — have spent years negotiating a deal that would let the church rebuild on land a bit farther south than the 1,200-square-foot lot it sat on, in exchange for financial help to rebuild it.
The agency said the church stopped negotiating after rejecting an offer in 2008 of $20 million in financing, plus up to an additional $40 million to cover costs related to the construction of a parking lot underneath the church.
Port Authority officials said the church wanted final approval on the design of the parking lot and the potential for an additional $20 million in public money. The agency said it made a final offer in 2009 that was rejected.
"St. Nicholas Church continues to retain the right to build on its original location," the agency said in a statement Monday. It said work could begin in 2013 if the church helped finance it.
Karloutsos, the archbishop's assistant, denied that any offer had been rejected, instead saying that Port Authority pulled the deal and has since ignored the church's attempts at dialogue. "This is about the Port Authority reneging on a promise," he said.
Pataki, who as governor promised that St. Nicholas would be rebuilt after the 2001 attacks, said Monday that the Port Authority needed to reach out to church officials.
"It's just wrong that the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Church, which was there, which was part of the master plan ... has basically been ignored," he said.
"All of our political leadership seems intent on assisting the mosque, at the same time they have taken no steps to make sure St. Nicholas is rebuilt," he said.
Both Demos and Pataki are opposed to building an Islamic center and mosque at a building two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. The uproar over the proposed $100 million center has become a national campaign issue and led hundreds to rally in front of ground zero over the weekend.
Critics of the project say it's an affront to the memories of the more than 2,700 people killed at ground zero on Sept. 11 to locate the center so close to the site. Proponents say accepting the center respects religious freedom and tolerance.