Protecting Sacred Space at the World Trade Center

Questions about safety are rife at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan because of the site’s unique history and the sheer number of people there on any given day. To get inside the heads of garden-variety pickpockets and those with darker motives, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which owns the site, has integrated an array of security features. Some—sally ports, credentialing booths, street bollards—are visible, while others, delineated in classified documents, are known only to a few. To quantify these efforts in another way: from the 2015 operating budget of $2.9 billion, about $800 million will be spent on security. Patrick J. Foye, the Port’s executive director, agrees that it is “a shockingly high number, but given the demands of the 9/11 world, not surprising.”

Perhaps the best indication, however, of the extent of these precautions is the presence of St. Nicholas National Shrine, the diminutive Greek Orthodox church that is now under construction above the site’s most dangerous spot, the subterranean Vehicle Security Center, where all entering vehicles are screened for explosives.

Moreover, St. Nicholas is the only religious structure at the Trade Center, now reconstructed after the original buildings were destroyed in the attack. When it’s completed in 2018, the church will be open to the public seven days a week, a place for believers and nonbelievers alike. Greek Orthodox rites, which typically involve outdoor processionals, will continue here, where the role and presence of religion has been deeply contested.

Clearly, for many reasons, the church is vulnerable. This does not trouble Father Alexander Karloutsos, Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and also a Port Authority chaplain. “We believe in the resurrection, so to be concerned about location would be antithetical to our faith,” he says. “Everybody knows the word xenophobia, a Greek word, which is fear of a stranger. Well, there’s another Greek word, philoxenia, which is the love of the stranger. This church will be one of philoxenia, and people will always be able to come and be embraced, affirmed, and supported.” In late 2016 a temporary Justinian cross was installed atop St. Nicholas’s dome, the first overtly religious symbol at Ground Zero. Steven Plate, who directed World Trade Center construction for the Port Authority, reiterated that inclusivity, welcoming all denominations and creeds.

This story appeared in Faith and Form, the Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art and Architecture, no. 1, 2017. To read the full article, and other stories on safety and security considerations at houses of worship, visit

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