Interfaith effort works to beautify Philadelphia mosque

Community volunteers paint parts of mural at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society on Saturday, January 9, 2016 in Philadelphia.

Mayor Kenney slipped rather quietly into the basement room of Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, where dozens of children and adults, Muslims, Jews, Christians - and probably an atheist or two - were busy wielding paint brushes Saturday, rolling out clay, and cutting and decorating unfired tiles.

People were dabbing paint onto sections of fabric that, within the next several months, will cover the mosque's huge north wall with colorful geometric designs and faux arches - a complement to the murals and tiles created in 2004 that now cover the mosque's front facade and part of its south wall.

The murals speak to the community. They say this building at Germantown Avenue and Jefferson Street is most definitely Islamic - vivid, bright, welcoming.

"I'm here because I want to learn," said Suhaib Elbakhadaoui, a seventh grader at McCall School, ready to help. "Instead of sitting at home, I'd rather come here and meet more Muslims and learn about them. This is beautiful."

Kenney was there because he has been at Aqsa many times, and while this visit had been scheduled before the West Philadelphia shooting Thursday night of a police officer by a supposed supporter of Islamic State radicals, the violent incident gave his visit added meaning.

Kenney wanted to say simply, "We're all God's children." And he did.

As he has previously, Kenney denounced the shooting as a violent, lawless act.

"It was an individual act of criminality," the mayor said. "It was not an act of religion."

The mayor did not want to turn the mural-painting project - organized by Aqsa in partnership with ArtWell, a nonprofit group, and the city's Mural Arts Program - into a political forum.

So he quickly picked up a paint brush and started slapping great gobs of dark ultramarine paint onto fabric.

"This is blue, isn't it?" he asked Jane Golden, head of Mural Arts.

"You'll have to ask the artist," she replied, slapping on a little gold.

While the mayor was reluctant to get into politics until he could step outside, the leaders and congregants of Al-Aqsa, the city's largest mosque, with a largely Arab congregation, were clearly grateful for his presence.

"It comes from the heart, from his own family's experience with being Irish," said Marwan Kreidie, head of the Arab American Development Corp.

Kenney certainly made that clear.

Finally outside, standing in front of the still undecorated north wall and surrounded by reporters, he brought up the anti-Catholic rioting of 1840s Philadelphia.

"I will tell you that within a short walking distance from here - you can probably see the steeple - is a Catholic church called St. Michael's," he said. "In 1844, over two months of anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia, St. Michael's, St. Augustine, and St. Philip Neri's were destroyed by people who believed at the time, as they said, that the bloody hand of the pope was going to take over America and they wanted to push the Catholics out because the Irish were coming here. . . .

"Those three churches were burned to the ground with the same type of attitude and maliciousness and evil that is permeating the country today in this national conversation."

A severed pig's head was thrown in front of the Al-Aqsa entrance in December. Offensive phone messages at the mosque offices, and street incidents outside, have become increasingly common.

Many neighbors and religious groups reached out to Aqsa after the pig's head incident; hundreds more turned out for an Aqsa barbecue in December held to show thanks to the community.

And now, the mural project has continued the outpouring.

"This whole project is about interfaith and people from different cultures getting along," said sculptor Joe Brenman, a member of Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Roxborough, who has helped plan the mural process for over a year.

He worked with children from three schools - Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy, La Salle Academy, and Moffett Elementary School - to design and make tiles.

The children range from fourth to eighth grade.

"The art-making process is one of the best ways to bring people together," said Adab Ibrahim, Aqsa's outreach coordinator. "From the mosque's perspective, we need to embrace our neighbors, and since the pig's head incident, people have embraced us. This is a safe place."

Parris Stancell, from Mural Arts, worked up the design for the new mural, a difficult undertaking given the size of the north wall, which is bisected by a fire escape.

Gayle Lacks, a member of the Mount Airy synagogue P'Nai Or, said coming to Aqsa and painting with those of other faiths and traditions was critical to understanding community.

"These are ways people get to know each other and not be afraid," she said, working with yellow paint. She said she was saddened to see an entire faith tarred by the acts and statements of a few.

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury