After a desecration at its front door prompted goodwill messages from as far away as Australia, the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society decided to say thank you in its own backyard.
So on a May-like day in December, the society hosted a cookout in the parking lot. The gathering of the group's interfaith array of friends and supporters Saturday served as both a gesture of gratitude and a show of solidarity nearly a week after a pig's head was thrown on the sidewalk outside the mosque in North Philadelphia.
"Special gratitude for your great support, your beautiful cooperation, and your compassion," said Imam Mohamed Shehata in Arabic during a speech that was later translated into English. "We greet you with peace, and peace is our main goal, desire and hope . . ."
Hundreds of neighbors, clergy, families, and well-wishers crowded into the mosque's parking lot at Germantown Avenue and Jefferson Street for the afternoon event.
Guests, who wore lapel tags with their names printed in Arabic, dined on a menu of hot dogs, hamburgers, and falafel. Teens played basketball and soccer. Organizations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) set up tables to distribute information.
The demonstration of support comes as tensions are high. The mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, coupled with what some view as inflammatory political rhetoric, have resulted in a spike in incidents of vandalism and harassment against mosques, according to CAIR, a Muslim civil rights group.
Mosques and Islamic centers in the United States have been the victims of vandalism and harassment at least 63 times this year, the highest number since 2009, when CAIR began recording anti-Muslim incidents, according to a study sponsored by the group.
Al-Aqsa was desecrated last Sunday night when a surveillance video shows someone in a red pickup truck tossing something that rolled toward the mosque's front door. An Al-Aqsa employee discovered the bloodied head early Monday.
Pigs are an insult to Muslims, who observe halal dietary laws.
As news of the act spread, supporters quickly called, emailed, stopped by, and sent flowers and food.
'Very good leads'
Mayor Nutter, flanked by area clergy, hosted a news conference Tuesday and offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. PETA has donated another $2,000 to the reward. Philadelphia police, the FBI, and the city's Human Relations Commission have launched investigations.
"We are following up on some very good leads and information, but the investigation is ongoing," said Police Capt. George Kappe, who attended the cookout.
The idea to host the event started with neighbors who live near the mosque, said Marwan Kreidie, head of the Arab American Development Corp., a community development group.
"They said they wanted to do something for us," Kreidie said. "They said a rally, and I didn't want a rally, so I said why not a picnic and open house. I asked people to bring a dish. I just thought it would be a nice time."
'Stand in support'
One of those neighbors, Derek Dorsey, said he "felt hurt" and compelled to act in response to the incident.
"I felt we should do something as a community to stand in support and show that acts like this that are attempts to divide us won't work," said Dorsey, a music promoter and cyclist.
Founded in 1989, Al-Aqsa houses a main prayer hall, private school, a social hall, and food store and serves as headquarters of the Arab American Development Corp.
Its striking gold, blue, white, and beige facade of art and mosaics - called Doorways to Peace - was created as part of an interfaith art project and stood as a backdrop for the Saturday cookout.
Safia Hamada, 14, a student at Westtown School in Chester County, traveled from her home in Mullica Hill, Gloucester County, to attend the event.
"I was shocked to see the disrespect," Hamada said, "then I thought something good could come out of this. And I was right. It was a wake-up call to not only the Muslim community but the citizens of Philadelphia that this is not OK."