Sept- 11

St. Nicholas (the real one) returning to lower Manhattan

When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint's feast day on Dec. 6th, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan. 

It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary -- 80 yards from the World Trade Center's South Tower -- which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom. 

"It's all of this powerful symbolism and its link to that Sept. 11 narrative that lets people grab onto the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters," said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 

Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears down into the underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum. 

But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine -- a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass -- over this memorial plaza. 

Sept. 11 -- Dreams of St. Nicholas

The first thing police found at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a piece of a wing and landing gear from American Flight 11.

Then the World Trade Center's north tower fell on the humble, white-washed walls of the tiny sanctuary across the street. It took time for work crews to find much of anything after that.

Eventually they found a paper icon of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos, but never found its frame or silver cover. They found an embroidered velvet cloth, but not the Bible it covered. They found a bell clapper, but not the bell. They found a silver hand in prayer, a wooden icon of a healing fountain, fragments of the marble altar, a twisted piece of a candelabrum and beeswax candles that survived the hellfire from above.

Church officials recovered part of a ceremonial book of New Testament epistles, with the smell of smoke in every page.

But the faithful have yet to recover the 700-pound fireproof steel safe from the office, the one containing the golden ossuary with its fragments of the bones of three saints, including their patron. St. Nicholas of Myra is the 4th century saint who in Western lands has evolved into St. Nick. Father John Romas explained all of this to workers at the New Jersey landfill as they sifted through mountains of rubble from ground zero.

"I told them about the relics of St. Nicholas and St. Katherine and St. Sava," said Romas, priest at St. Nicholas for almost two decades and a chanter for years before that. "I told them about the safe on the top floor. I described everything in detail. But our little church was gone. There were no windows, no doors, no walls -- nothing."

The priest paused, trying to find English words for his emotions.

"What can we say? Someone may have picked up a gold box thinking there would be money in it and then they threw everything else away. Who knows? Who knows? Who knows? But this we do know -- we will rebuild our church."

The parish's 80 families have every reason to be hopeful, said Romas, as they wait for city, state and regional officials to solve what the New York Times calls an "urban-planning Rubik's Cube." The goal? Build 10 million square feet of commercial space and rebuild lower Manhattan's infrastructure, while creating a towering architectural masterpiece that honors those lost on a day that changed the city, the nation and the world.

Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has received assurances from New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the sanctuary can be rebuilt next to the World Trade Center site. Architect Daniel Libeskind's winning design for the site and memorial also includes St. Nicholas, the only church that was destroyed.

And the parish (www.stnicholasnyc.org) does control its site at 155 Cedar Street. But the old building was only 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet high. Church leaders hope to raise funds to buy additional property to build a slightly larger church, in anticipation of new families and visitors to the Sept. 11 memorial.

The building that became St. Nicholas was built in 1832 as a private residence and even spent several years as a tavern. Greek immigrants bought it in 1916 and it was dedicated as a church the next year. Part of the church's charm was its size -- a Byzantine haven dwarfed by steel, glass, concrete and stress.

Every Wednesday, St. Nicholas invited workers and executives to spend the lunch hour in prayer.

In the future, Wednesdays will not be enough.

"Downtown New York City is crazy. It's another world. Yet when you stepped inside St. Nicholas you were taken someplace totally different," said John Pitsikalis, the parish council president. "You literally had the hubbub of the whole world of commerce only a few steps away and yet here was this small zone of peace and quiet and beauty.

"You would come in and the air would be still, the candles would be lit, there would be soft liturgical music and you would be surrounded by the icons. ... People needed that place of sanctuary and that is what we have to have again."

Trying to do the Muslim math

Researchers at Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religious Research began with seven different lists of mosques in the United States.

They eliminated all duplicates, before attempting to verify the existence of each institution. This produced a list of 1,209 mosques. Interviews at 416 found that about 340 Muslims regularly prayed in a typical mosque, but 1,629 or so might be associated in one way or another with its religious life.

Then the researchers did what researchers do -- the math. The numbers suggested that there might be 1,969,000 or so Muslims linked to U.S. mosques in 2000.

But there was a problem. Another study found 2,000 "mosques, schools and Islamic centers" and yet another 3,000, including "prayer locations." These numbers would push the population total higher. And what about all the Americanized, "cultural" Muslims who don't go to worship? What about mosques that only count the men?

"The data we have on how many people are going to mosques is actually pretty good, I believe," according to Mohamed Nimer of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The problem is what happens when you try to postulate up from that number to some kind of estimate for the total Muslim population in this country.

"At that point, all kinds of things can happen to the numbers. No one agrees on how to make that leap."

This is serious business in the tense, highly politicized atmosphere following Sept. 11, 2001. Muslim leaders are striving to portray their community as a solidly mainstream presence in American culture. Everyone knows Islam is winning converts and becoming more visible, especially during seasons such as Ramadan, which is expected to end Dec. 6.

But how many Muslims are there in America? The Glenmary Research Center says 1.6 million, while CAIR and other Muslim advocacy groups say 7 million. Other reports jump all over the statistical map. Meanwhile, U.S. Census officials cannot ask questions about religion.

Writing in Public Opinion Quarterly, researcher Tom W. Smith is blunt: "None of the 23 specific estimates during the past five years is based on a scientifically sound or explicit methodology as far as one can tell from the published reports. All can probably be characterized as guesses or assertions." He concludes that the best estimates fall between 1.9 and 2.8 million, while most media reports continue to say 6 to 7 million.

While some researchers begin with data from mosques, others use telephone surveys. But Nimer said this fails to take into account immigrants whose English is weak. Others may hesitate to talk about their faith with strangers on the telephone. Finally, other surveys turn to immigration data focusing on ancestry and country of origin.

But immigrants are often hard to count, said journalist Joyce Davis, author of "Between Jihad and Salaam." Some are constantly moving to visit relatives in different parts of the nation, seeking the right place to settle. Some are unsure of their status with authorities. Some are trying to blend into this new culture.

"A significant number of Muslims simply do not want people to be able to trace them through a mosque," she said. "This was true before 9/11 and it certainly is true now. The assumption is that the FBI is paying close attention to those membership lists. Many Muslims -- for a variety of reasons -- may not want to join anything right now.

There are layers of other complications. Nimer is convinced only one out of three U.S. Muslims actively practices his or her faith. It's hard to know precisely how many African Americans are converting. Some surveys are notorious for missing Muslims from Southeast Asia, where Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population.

There is no clear bottom line. But Nimer said he believes conservative estimates of Muslims in America should fall between 2.5 and 4 million.

"It is crucial to realize that this is an issue that applies to all religious groups, not just Muslims," he said. "It is hard, as a rule, to count religious people. ... Are you counting people who are born into a particular faith or those who practice it? Do you want to count Arabs or do you want to count Muslims? Or do you want to count Arabs who are Muslims?"

Spirituality up, doctrine down

During the 1990s, pollster George Barna released many reports showing that Americans were growing less traditional on issues of sin, salvation and the scriptures.

Church leaders found his data disturbing. On many occasions they asked: Could anything reverse these trends? What would it take to inspire significant numbers of Americans to repent and return to their roots?

"I told people that I thought it was going to take something big, some kind of genuinely shocking event that would show that there is right and wrong and good and evil," said Barna. "I sincerely thought that if something like that happened, many people would turn to God and that we would see lives changed."

Apparently not, he said.

The Barna Research Group's latest data indicate that nearly half of the Americans polled say faith has played a vital role in helping them cope with the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. In poll after poll, Americans claim their interest in spirituality is rising.

But Barna said there is no evidence Sept. 11 that had any lasting impact on how ordinary people practice their faith or live their daily lives. Worship attendance quickly returned to normal -- 43 percent. Bible reading is par for the course -- 41 percent. It is especially interesting that the "unchurched," the percentage of Americans with few or no ties to organized religion, is precisely the same as before the attacks -- 33 percent.

Barna said it didn't help that 41 percent of churchgoers said their congregation did nothing at all during the past 12 months to address issues raised by the attacks. Only 16 percent said they had heard sermons or other teachings focusing on Sept. 11.

"It's clear that our churches did little to try to crack the spiritual complacency of the American public," said Barna.

Researchers at the Gallup Organization have been looking at similar numbers.

"People are talking about how they are more spiritual now," said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. "But this just isn't showing up in any way that we can measure. Maybe they are more spiritual. Maybe that statement is true. But this new interest in spirituality is showing up in what people are feeling, not what they are doing."

The bottom line: ask Americans questions about how Sept. 11 affected their religious feelings and the poll numbers will soar. Ask them questions about specific religious beliefs and practices and the numbers will plateau or even decline. The emerging consensus seems to be that vague, comforting spirituality is healthy, but that doctrinal, authoritative religion may even be dangerous.

That may be a hard news story to report and write, but it is still a major story, according to Steven Waldman, editor and chief at Beliefnet.com. When probing the impact of Sept. 11 on religious life in America and abroad, it is fairly easy to note what did happen. Yes, Americans responded with character and compassion. American attitudes toward Islam have seemed to change on a daily basis. There has been shocking evidence of brutal anti-Semitism.

But Waldman believes the big news is "what didn't happen. The fact that people initially went to houses of worship -- and then stopped -- should be viewed as a huge story, not a non-event." The bottom line, he said, is that "Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. ... While the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up."

And as the 12 months passed, Barna's staff kept asking a series of tough questions about right and wrong and about good and evil.

Barna was stunned to find that, soon after Sept. 11, the percentage of Americans affirming that they believe in "moral truths or principles" that are eternal and unchanging actually declined -- from 38 to 22 percent. Only 32 percent of born-again Christians still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

"Those numbers have not risen" in recent months, said Barna. "Why is that? ... Perhaps many Americans have simply decided that it's just too much work to claim very specific and detailed beliefs and then to try to follow them in daily life. It's just too hard. It's too limiting on their behavior.

"I think most Americans want to keep their options open."

High Holy Days, one year later

The ritual could not have been more familiar, but Rabbi Howard Shapiro found it almost impossible to say the usual prayers for the infant.

It was only a few days after Sept. 11th. Suddenly, it was hard to talk about blessings, peace, goodness, faith and hope.

"I remember what I said to the family that day," said Shapiro, the leader of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I said that we must force ourselves to say these words. We must say these words, because if we do not say them, then we will never believe them. And if we never believe them, then we will never act on them."

Now rabbis across from coast to coast are facing the High Holy Days, with the first anniversary of 9/11 falling in the middle of the season this year on the ancient Jewish calendar. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown Friday (Sept. 6) and the season ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

There will be many pages of familiar prayers to say and none of them will sound the same. Rabbis who have prepared scores of services and sermons for the High Holy Days all know that, this year, their words will carry a special weight.

What should be said? What should be left unsaid?

In his Rosh Hashanah sermon text, Shapiro listed the familiar questions: "When people reflect back they ask: What did we do? Why did this happen? What do they have against us?"

In the public square, he noted, many are trying to blame Islam, insisting that it "does not honor life as Judaism and Christianity do." Others are blaming God, insisting that Sept. 11th proved that "religion is the root of all evil." Some blame Israel. Some people, as always, blame the Jews.

"Some blame our very way of life -- from McDonalds to Hollywood to Wall Street to Washington," wrote Shapiro. "This much I know. It is none of the above and all of the above. It is all about the way we see the future and ourselves. It is all about whether we are going to enter this new century as free, independent people or we are going to walk back into the Middle Ages."

After the sermon, the choir will sing Psalm 61: "Hear my cry, O God. From the end of the earth I cry unto Thee. My heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You are a Shelter; You are a Strong Tower."

Many will flinch when hearing the words "Strong Tower." It also will be hard to pray for the day when, "Violence shall rage no more, and evil shall vanish like smoke; the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth, and You alone shall reign over all Your works." It will be hard to praise God, saying, "Your power is in the help that comes to the falling, ... in the faith You keep with those who sleep in the dust."

At Temple Israel, here in heavily Jewish South Florida, the faithful said they did not need a special Sept. 11 service. The High Holy Days rites will be enough.

A rabbi does not need to make many additions to a rite that already states: "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water. ..."

The events of Sept. 11 were shocking, horrifying and unique for believers in this generation. But the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been recited for centuries. They have been prayed just as often in times of terror and tragedy as in times of peace and security.

These prayers unite worshippers today with those through the ages. These prayers transcend time.

"To say these prayers is to know that we are not the first generation to deal with the precariousness of life," said Shapiro. "That is what a religious tradition offers to us. It helps us deal with the fact that life is often scary."

After Sept. 11 -- What good? What evil?

There was never any question whether the hellish events of Sept. 11 would be selected as the most important news story in the Religion Newswriters Association's annual poll.

The question was which Sept. 11 religion story would receive the most votes.

There were so many - from the prayers of the bombers to the prayers of those who fought them. In the end, five of the RNA poll's top 10 stories were linked to Sept. 11 in some way. The secular journalists who cover religion named Osama bin Laden as 2001's most significant religion newsmaker, with President Bush placing second.

"Osama bin Laden has demonstrated, not for the first time in history, how easily religion and religious fervor can be hijacked to serve political ends," noted one journalist.

Was this attack merely about politics? Armies of experts said it was part of an ancient clash between civilizations and religions. Some saw evidence of a pivotal struggle within Islam, a fight requiring sermons and fatwas as well as bullets and bombs. President Bush said this was a battle between good and evil - period.

But it's hard to discuss good and evil, and terrorists and heroes, in an age that says truth is a matter of opinion. Welcome back to America's culture wars.

"We're not fighting to eradicate 'terrorism,' " argued Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times. "Terrorism is just a tool. World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if others are negated."

In this column and others, the New York Times defined "religious totalitarianism" as any claim that a faith teaches absolute, exclusive truth.

"The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war," wrote Friedman. "Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays? Many Jews and Christians have already argued that the answer to that question is yes, and some have gone back to their sacred texts to reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism."

David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America fiercely disagreed, insisting that this "vision of America where religious belief is welcome only if it abandons claims to exclusive truth is truly chilling - and truly intolerant."

Here are the top 10 stories in the RNA poll:

1. Americans rush to prayer vigils after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Clergy describe waves of worshippers asking, "Where was God?'' Worship attendance surges, but quickly returns to seasonal levels.

2. Fearing a backlash of hate, most American Muslims experience just the opposite. Many non-Muslims organize visits to mosques and clergy condemn negative stereotypes.

3. Bush repeatedly proclaims that America's war is not with Islam, but with those who blaspheme its teachings. But many Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims agree with bin Laden's proclamations that the U.S. is at war with their faith.

4. Months of debate over the morality of research on stem cells taken from human embryos lead to a presidential order limiting the use of federal research dollars to existing stem cell lines.

5. Assassinations and suicide bombings escalate in Israel, fueling animosity and mistrust in the Middle East and dimming the prospects of peace between Jews and Palestinians. Homes are bulldozed in Gaza and the West Bank.

6. The White House proceeds with its Faith-Based Initiative despite criticism from the religious left and many conservatives. A modified version wins passage in the U.S. House, but has yet to pass the Senate.

7. Books and courses on Islamic beliefs and culture surge in popularity as Americans seek to better understand Islamic fundamentalism and its place in the Muslim world.

8. Pope John Paul II visits to Greece, Syria and Malta, becoming the first pope to visit a mosque, the Great Mosque in Damascus. A papal visit to the Ukraine increases old tensions, as Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox leaders claim that he is stealing their sheep.

9. Books on prayer soar on bookstore charts, illustrated by sales of the ``Prayer of Jabez.'' The apocalyptic "Left Behind" series sets publishing records, even though only 24 percent of Americans and 42 percent of ``born again'' Christians say they have heard of the books.

10. Christian relief workers -- accused by the Taliban of trying to convert Muslims -- are freed after three months of captivity in Afghanistan.

Happy Hanukkah, no matter what

When Sabina Dener was a child in the Bronx, she knew it was Hanukkah when everyone started singing Christmas carols.

"When I was in school, we had to learn Christmas carols and we had to stand up and sing them, too," she said, describing the World War II era. "That's just the way things were. Hanukkah was a minor holiday we celebrated at home. It was about treats and games and that was that.

"Now everything has changed. Just look at this."

It was a glorious evening to light the first candle of the eight-day "festival of lights," as about 3,000 Jews gathered under the palm trees at CityPlace, a $550-million development in the heart of West Palm Beach, Fla. If celebrants stood in the right place on the balcony last Sunday night, they could see the whole panorama of Macy's, the New York Pretzel stand, a nonsectarian holiday tree and the eight-foot-tall menorah.

On the map, this is a long way from the boroughs of New York City. But the two regions are connected by tradition, statistics and what can only be called the Seinfeldian ties that bind. Research in 2000 found that 230,000 people live in Jewish households in Palm Beach County -- America's sixth-largest Jewish community.

The mood at this celebration seemed to be, "Happy Hanukkah, no matter what." Rabbis offered meditations about sacrifice and justice. The local congressman loudly praised the military and attacked the enemy.

Hanukkah traditions include a note of defiance. The holiday centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels, led by the Maccabees, defeated their Greek oppressors. The rite of lighting candles -- one on the first night, increasing to eight -- began with a miracle linked to this victory. When it came time to purify the recaptured temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. Tradition says this one-day supply burned for eight days.

For centuries, Hanukkah has symbolized the need for Jews to defend the purity of their faith, when asked to assimilate. Today, many insist that the holiday is a celebration of religious liberty and pluralism -- period.

"In every generation, there are Maccabees," shouted Rabbi Isaac Jarett of Temple Emanu-El, one of nine participating rabbis from the various branches of Judaism. "In every generation, there are people who seek to destroy us -- as unbelievable as that seems.

"Right now, we have Maccabees in Afghanistan fighting to preserve Western Civilization. ... So why did you come here? You came here tonight, not because you wanted to be here. You came because you needed to be here."

It was hard to find anyone present who was not from the New York City area or somehow connected -- through family ties -- with the events of Sept. 11. It was impossible to find anyone who didn't connect recent events in Israel and in the United States. When the music played, even the most frail and elderly people in the courtyard rose to their feet to sing "The Hope," the national anthem of Israel, and then "The Star Spangled Banner."

When the anthems were over, Baby Boomer Gregg Lerman kept bouncing 9-month-old Hope in his arms. Her sparkling ear studs matched her father's and her tiny t-shirt proclaimed: "My First Chanukah."

"What's this all about? It's about rebirth and freedom," said Lerman, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y. "That's what Hanukkah is supposed to be about and that is certainly what it means to me right now. It's about survival in the face of adversity, both here in America and, as always, in Israel."

After an hour or so, the sermons ended and the partying began. People shopped, danced, sang traditional songs and made pilgrimages to Starbucks and The Cheesecake Factory. Children lobbied for more presents and parents headed to the parking deck with their heavy shopping bags.

But this was one year when everyone knew Hanukkah was about something else.

"It's about the triumph of good over evil," said Dener. "After Sept. 11, this holiday is suddenly very relevant. The concept of a life and death struggle between good and evil is not theoretical right now. It's real."