CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS A notice of condemnation is taped to the front door of the former English Congregational Church.
The former English Congregational Church in Lansford, purchased last summer by a controversial Middle Eastern religious group, has been condemned, a year after a housing inspector's report described it as a hazard and multiple warnings from the borough code enforcement officer were ignored.
However, Code Enforcement Officer Katheryn Labosky said Monday, the organization has since hired workers who have begun cutting high weeds and grass and doing some repairs to the exterior of the church, at 47 W. Ridge St. If the conditions are corrected, the condemnation could be lifted, she said.
Labosky was forced to condemn the building on Sept. 23 after the Orthodox Center for Religious Studies, with addresses in Orange, Calif., and Cairo, Egypt, failed to respond to several letters she sent including at least one to Egypt concerning the poor condition of the three-story, 10,000-square-foot church.
Among the problems are water damage from a roof that has been leaking for years and overgrown brush.
The Orthodox Center for Religious Studies, headed by Bishop Zakaria Botros, an outspoken Coptic Christian whose evangelical zeal in converting Muslims to Christianity has drawn the ire of Muslim leaders, plans to apply for a zoning permit to use the church as a center for Coptic studies, Labosky said. Orthodox Center representative Ragaei Ayoub in September 2009 applied for a zoning permit, listing the intended use of the building as a church.
But in order to use the church at all, it must first meet standard building codes. Botros' representatives have met with Labosky and borough building engineers Barry Isett & Associates. Isett Building Control Officer Rick Harmon inspected the church in September, 2009.
His findings led him to request a more thorough inspection; that was done last week, but the report won't be finished and in Labosky's hands for another couple of weeks.
Harmon's initial inspection revealed the following:
• The exterior roof covering is loose and debris is falling from the roof near adjacent structures;
• The eaves of the roof are allowing rain water to enter the exterior walls of the structure, causing mold and water damage to walls and floors;
• The brick extensions, located directly below the roof eaves, are allowing rain water to enter through the deteriorated grouting of the brick exterior walls, causing mold and water damage to walls and floors;
• The wood floor is rotting in several areas due to neglect and lack of proper moisture control, creating a serious hazard to the extent of falling through the floor;
• Paint is peeling away from the exterior walls and ceilings on each floor level from the moisture present in the structure. This paint may be lead-based due to the age and condition of the structure.
Harmon recommended the "building be listed as a hazard and a more intrusive investigation be conducted before any construction work can commence."
E-mail messages to the Center seeking response have not been answered.
The Center bought the former church from George and Gala Properties, Meadville, Missouri, for $41,000 on July 31, 2009, according to the Carbon County Recorder of Deeds and the county assessment office. George and Gala Properties' principal George W. Duncan had bought the church at auction on June 18, 2009 for $26,000.
The Orthodox Center asked to have the former church exempted from property taxes because, Ayoub wrote in his request for an appeal, it is a public charity. However, the county assessment appeals board dismissed the appeal after representatives failed to appear at a scheduled hearing on Aug. 4.
The building is assessed for tax purposes at $111,795, meaning it owes a total of $10,284 in 2010 property taxes: $6,225.86 to the Panther Valley School District; $3,287.89 to Lansford Borough and $714.71 to the county, according to the county tax assessment office.
Coptics are the oldest Christian community in the Middle East. International news reports describe Botros of converting untold numbers of Muslims to Christianity through televised broadcasts, which Botros delivers in Arabic.
The 81-year-old cleric was named "Islam's 'Public Enemy No. 1'" by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid.