CHAPEL HILL, United States (AFP) - The families of three Muslim students shot dead by a white neighbour said an emotional farewell to their loved ones on Thursday, reiterating calls for the killings to be treated as a hate crime.
More than 5,000 people gathered for the funeral of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were killed by an anti-religion neighbour.
The alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was believed to be strongly opposed to religion, as his Facebook page showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including proclamations denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
Police said they were investigating the crime as a parking dispute, but families of the slain students repeated their belief it was a religiously-motivated attack.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had launched a parallel probe into the killings. Federal prosecutors often look into suspected hate-crime cases – a conviction for “hate crime” results in a tougher sentence.
“We are definitely certain that our daughters were targeted for their religion,” the father of the sisters, Mohammad Abu-Salha, told AFP.
“This is not a parking dispute, these children were executed with shots in the back of the heads,” he said, surrounded by tearful family members as they prepared for the final funeral prayer.
“This has hate crime written all over it and I’m not going to sit down for it,” he said later before three caskets.
He said his daughter Yusor had complained that Hicks had harassed her, and appeared at her door to complain about a parking space with a gun holstered at his waist.
Chapel Hill Police lieutenant Joshua Mecimore said the crime appeared to have been provoked by “an ongoing parking dispute between neighbours,” but added all possible motives were being investigated.
Officials said the incident did not appear to be part of a broader anti-Muslim campaign, and District Attorney for Middle North Carolina Ripley Rand said the killing was being treated as an “isolated incident.”
Neighbours recalled Hicks as troublesome, frequently squabbling with nearby residents over parking and seen with his gun in public, according to local media reports.
The killing rattled the community, stoking fears among some Muslims in the tight-knit university town.
“To be honest, it makes me more scared because I have two babies, so I don’t even want to imagine,” said Sarah Alhorani, a former student at University of North Carolina where Barakat was a second-year dentistry student.
“I was scared to walk out my door, but I did and I kept going and I kept my scarf on and you keep moving on,” said Alhorani, a friend of all three victims.
Some Muslim leaders said the shooting was a reflection of wider anti-Muslim hostility, and warned it could sow fear among Muslim-Americans.
“Already it is stoking fears. I’ve received dozens of phone calls,” Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told AFP.
“People are very concerned about what happened they feel that this is a premeditated hate crime,” he said.
But there were calls for calm and leaders urged restraint.
“It’s time to mourn but its also time to call for harmony and peace,” the head of the Islamic Association in neighbouring Raleigh, Mohamed Elgamal, told AFP.
There are some 65,000 Muslims in North Carolina, which has a population of 9.9 million, and the majority live in the Chapel Hill area.
The killings in Chapel Hill sparked outrage among Muslims worldwide with the hashtags #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter trending globally.
‘ALL LIVES MATTER’
Meanwhile, relatives and friends honoured Deah, Yusor and Razad Thursday at the traditional Muslim service.
Tearful crowds followed the funeral hearse to an outdoor service, where thousands gathered to kneel and pray.
“If you loved them them know than know that we are proud of them that they are Muslim,” said Noumann Siddiqui, Islamic Council member.
“All of us, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike put love... in our hearts. All lives matter,” he said.
The funeral followed a candlelight vigil Wednesday at UNC, where thousands gathered to hear tearful speeches from friends and family.
Deah and Yusor were married on Dec 27, and the new bride was set to attend UNC dentistry school in August.
Her five bridesmaids spoke of her kindness and her love for breakfast cereal, while Deah was remembered for his community work and passion for basketball.