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Shooting death at mosque door spreads fear

The gunfire that ended Ouadii Souliman's life sent fear ricocheting across the Muslim society that worships in Arabic at Al Aqsa Mosque on the gentrifying border between Northern Liberties and Fishtown.

The gunfire that ended Ouadii Souliman's life sent fear ricocheting across the Muslim society that worships in Arabic at Al Aqsa Mosque on the gentrifying border between Northern Liberties and Fishtown.

The brutality shocked congregants. The seeming incongruity of Souliman's fate grips them still.

"This guy was innocent. He's not an animal. You can't kill him like this. It's not right," said Algerian-born Ismail Bouzid, making a sandwich last week in his shop across the street.

Gunned down at the mosque door two Sundays ago as he awaited the dawn call to prayer, Moroccan-born Souliman, 33, left behind a wife, 30-year-old Asmae, who had arrived in the United States only one week earlier to be with him.

Married in Morocco in 2006, the couple lived apart while Souliman arranged for his bride to join him. He came to America in 2000 after winning a visa in the immigrant green-card lottery. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen two years ago.

But now, instead of starting life with him in a new land, Asmae had to escort his shroud-covered body back to Morocco for burial.

Worshippers said they were moved to tears when they saw news footage of Asmae's hands, still stained with henna from her celebratory send-off to America.

Beyond the poignancy of the circumstances, Souliman's death had congregants worried as well: Was his killing an act of hatred against Islam?

"When something like this happens in front of a mosque, it gives you a question mark," said Hassan Loudini, who worships sometimes at Al Aqsa.

"Imagine if a Jew was killed in front of a synagogue in Morocco, or a Christian is killed in front of a church," he said. "You would wonder if there is a connection."

Other worshipers speculated that Souliman was targeted because of something he might have witnessed.

Police say they considered those possibilities. But after arresting one 19-year-old man within a day of the killing and issuing a warrant for a second suspect, they concluded that the killing was an attempt to rob the victim that turned deadly.

Philadelphia Homicide Division Capt. Michael Costello said Souliman's death was "tied to a string of robberies that happened that night."

Regarding the rumor of a targeted hit - circulating even in Al Aqsa's administrative offices - Costello said: "That is just speculation. We believe it was a string of robberies. It happened quickly. He put up slight resistance, and they shot and killed him."

Souliman's death tests the balance of the Muslim community centered on the mosque and its school, both established in 1991 in a former furniture factory in the 1500 block of Germantown Avenue.

Knocked off its feet, how would the community right itself?

The first Arabs to settle in Philadelphia were mostly Lebanese, but immigrants arriving after 1960 have come from all over the Arab world.

"Roughly half of our school is Middle Eastern," said Abdur Rahman, principal of the 320-student school serving students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Al Aqsa offers Arabic language and Islamic cultural studies.

"We think [the center] has been an anchor that has helped to stabilize the community. It's becoming an institution that the neighbors look to," mosque spokesman Marwan Kreidie said. "It's also a polling place during elections. Neighborhood groups have forums in the basement. Neighborhood kids play basketball on the playground."

The renovation of nearby warehouses into artists lofts drives the area's renaissance, which the mosque and its congregants helped pioneer.

"We're their closest big neighbor. We get along great with those guys. . . . Our proximity has helped us learn about what each other is doing," said David Gleeson, codeveloper of the Crane Building, a plumbing-supply house converted into studios for artists.

That sense of neighborhood was shattered when Souliman was killed. His death tests the community's resolve.

In his first Friday sermon after the killing, Egyptian-born imam Mohammed Shehata praised the Police Department for rapidly calming the community and apprehending a suspect.

The prayer service included more than 200 men in stocking feet on a carpeted floor. Their shoes were on a wooden rack in the back of the room. Minaret-shape chandeliers lit the hall. About 40 veiled women in a separate room followed the service by audio link.

"One innocent life is more valuable to Allah than all the heavens and the earth," Shehata said.

"We are sad about what happened to our brother at the doors of the mosque. It is a calamity to us, but not to him. It is sad that he departed. But in the sight of Allah, he is still alive . . . being provided for."

For Shafiq Naboui, Souliman's countryman, former schoolmate and lifelong friend, there is comfort in those words. Yet the death still leaves him puzzled.

Naboui's apartment in Paulsboro - not far from the West Deptford apartment in which Souliman lived - is decorated with Arabic calligraphy, including a framed depiction of the 99 names of God.

Naboui said he and his friend often prayed at home and went to other mosques as well, but they frequented Al Aqsa whenever they could because they liked hearing Shehata's sermons in Arabic.

"I saw [Souliman] the Friday before he was killed. We talked. We laughed," Naboui said, his eyes welling with tears.

He said his friend, the oldest of five sons from a working-class family, had a bachelor's degree in physics from a Moroccan university. In the United States, Souliman worked for a pharmaceutical company in Swedesboro and sent money home.

He lived for a year in Stamford, Conn., then returned to South Jersey and worked in a warehouse.

For recreation he played soccer with other Moroccan immigrants. He liked to swim and ride his bike.

He took a two-week vacation to celebrate the arrival of his wife and was killed at the end of the first week.

In the back of Al Aqsa, Naboui participated in the ritual washing of Souliman's body with scented water and wrapping it in a shroud in preparation for burial. In his mind's eye, he still sees the four bullet holes in his friend's flesh.

At the service for Souliman, people who never knew him came to Al Aqsa to pay their respects. "All the brothers, they stood up as one person, Hamdillilah," Naboui said, using Arabic for "God willing."

"We call him a shahid," a martyr, Naboui said, because it is an honor to die doing something holy like attending the morning prayer.

"I believe he is in paradise," Naboui said. "Why was he called to heaven? That's for Allah to know. He gave us life. He can take it back."