Had things gone a little bit differently, the site near Ground Zero that is now being proposed for an Islamic cultural center might have been a church and school building. Christ Church New York City, an Anglican congregation that was looking for a permanent home, considered purchasing the site in 2005, long before it was bought by its current owners. "We certainly did want to build there," says the Rev. John Mason, the rector of Christ Church, which currently holds services in two buildings it does not own in the city's Upper East Side and Greenwich Village neighborhoods. "I was living downtown, and we were going to start a church in lower Manhattan. It seemed to me to be a strategic building for that kind of ministry."
Mason was alerted to the building by associates at the much larger Redeemer Presbyterian Church, headed by prominent Evangelical pastor Tim Keller. "There aren't a lot of churches in that area," says Mason, who also wanted to start a school in the building along the lines of an Anglican school he had helped found in his native Australia. "And it fit in with our vision, which is to create more context where Christians can interface with the wider community."
To buy and refit the building, however, would have cost Christ Church about $15 million, an amount beyond its reach, and it never made an offer. That might have been a blessing in disguise, considering how hard it seems to be to get religious institutions built near Ground Zero. St. Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox church on Cedar Street that was destroyed on 9/11, has not even begun rebuilding nine years after its destruction. Mired in bureaucratic red tape and difficult negotiations about a land swap, its congregation now meets in Brooklyn.
As for the controversial Islamic center that is to be built on that location, Mason, who was living near the World Trade Center on 9/11, says that while the group behind it "obviously has a constitutional right to build there," he has some concerns. "I think there's a pastoral issue here," he says. "There should be more sensitivity to those who lost loved ones on that day. A group that has associations with what happened albeit at a great distance should have sensitivity in that area."