On a stair rail in a West Philadelphia mosque, three balloons, emblazoned with "Welcome Home," said it all.
Yesterday, more than 1,000 Muslims poured into the Philadelphia Masjid to welcome the eminent Imam Warith Deen Mohammed "home" to members of the first congregation to which he preached in the late 1950s.
The 75-year-old Chicago head of an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Muslims nationwide returned to pray and preach about reconciliation, after being estranged for 16 years from the mosque, once headed by Shamsud-din Ali, at 47th Street and Wyalusing Avenue.
"I woke up and felt like a Catholic person must feel when the pope comes," said Rhonda Spencer-Sams, of Lans-downe. "It's undescribable."
Muslims, looking dapper in three-piece suits, fashionable in hijabs and "fly" in hip-hop outfits, came from Brooklyn, Delaware and mosques throughout the city.
They were as old as 97-year-old retired baker Joshua Bey and as young as a 2-month-old infant in his mother's arms. An office worker confided she just had sneaked out of work to attend the service, as had, it seemed, a laborer still wearing a dangling, work-related back brace.
For an hour they sat on the floor and in chairs, praying and listening to Mohammed speak.
The short, soft-spoken imam urged them to love God and one another, and to pray for Ali, an imam for 30 years, now serving an 87-month sentence for racketeering, fraud and other offenses.
"God looks to all our deeds," Mohammed said. "I pray for him. He's still my friend. I hope he overcomes his setback," said Mohammed, who added later: "I'm not trying to clean up his act."
Decades ago when the mosque was in turmoil, a believer recalled that Mohammed had advised: "If a leader comes - and I don't care if his name is Mohammed Mohammed, or Abdullah Abdullah - if he looks and sounds like the crap in the world, leave."
"When we found what we were working with, we left," said William Jacobs, 55, of Olney, referring to Ali and his criminal activities.
"But now we have the spirit of togetherness," he added, "and we're back."