By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Steel girders shaped like a cross that were rescued from the rubble of the destroyed World Trade Center days after the September 11, 2001, attacks are headed back to Ground Zero, organizers said on Monday.
The cross will be blessed by a priest on Saturday and then moved to the national memorial museum that is being built at the site.
But like so many things tied to the rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero, moving the cross is not without controversy.
Some atheists groups have criticized the plan to display it at the museum, slated to open on the tenth anniversary of the attacks this September, and were considering a lawsuit to block it, said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, a civil liberties organization.
The crossed set of steel beams was found standing upright in the rubble of 6 World Trade Center in downtown New York by a construction worker during a search for survivors two days after the attacks. For some it evoked the cross of Christian iconography, and it became a source of comfort for many workers involved in the disaster clean-up.
Brian Jordan, a friar in residence at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in New York, first blessed the cross in October, 2001, after construction workers at the site told him they saw the cross as "a sign that God never abandoned us at Ground Zero."
"We interpreted it as a cross because we were in desperate for need for some type of consolation, of support and comfort, which this cross provided," Jordan said in a telephone interview. "That's the reason why we saved it."
Jordan will again bless the cross on Saturday morning as it is transferred from its current location outside St. Peter's Church near the World Trade Center site to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, around the corner, where it will go on permanent display.
The cross will join other large artifacts at the museum, including the so-called Survivors' Stairway, an outdoor flight of steps that led hundreds of evacuees to safety. A damaged fire truck that responded to the attack will be handed over to the museum on Wednesday, a museum spokesman said.
At the memorial, bronze panels will list the names of the 2,982 killed at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001, including first responders, the passengers and crew of the four hijacked planes, and the victims of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Criticizing the display of the cross at the national museum, atheist leader Silverman said it violated the principle of the separation of church and state.
"It certainly gives the idea that the government is endorsing the idea this is a Muslim versus Christian event, or that Christians were somehow injured more than other people," Silverman said. "It's not appropriate."
Jordan, the friar who will be blessing the cross, rejected such criticism.
"This was a symbol of hope for all faith people," he said. "This is not meant to put one religion over another, that's not the point at all. We needed friendship and support and that cross was a stimulus to provide that support."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Bohan)