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Thousands mourn Muslim victims as FBI launches own probe

Posted February 12, 2015
Updated February 13, 2015

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— An estimated 5,500 mourners gathered Thursday in Raleigh at a solemn funeral and prayer service for three Muslim students gunned down in a Chapel Hill condominium in what police call a long-running dispute over parking spaces. Also on Thursday, the FBI said it had opened a "parallel preliminary inquiry."

Relatives viewed the victims' bodies in a small building apart from one of Raleigh's largest mosques, where the Muslim families have long been members. Then — because of the sizeable crowd — the service was moved across the street to athletic fields owned by North Carolina State University, where two victims had graduated and one was a student.

That service began after midday Muslim prayers. A man facing east sang an opening prayer. Then the crowd was solemn and silent — only a few children crying in the distance could be heard. A large blue plastic prayer mat lay on the field, and some brought their own to use.

Three coffins sat before a covered stage — in gray, then white and silver. At the service's end, about a dozen people carried each to hearses, which headed to the Islamic Association of Raleigh's Muslim cemetery in Wendell.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were found dead early Tuesday evening at the newlywed couple's home about 3 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – when a neighbor called 911 to report hearing multiple gunshots and people screaming.

Their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a "gun-toting atheist," is charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Barakat attended dental school at UNC; his wife had planned to join him in the fall.

Those gathered Thursday grappled with questions about whether the violence had some connection to their Muslim faith. The father of the two slain sisters says hatred of Muslims might explain why the dispute erupted into death.

Police have said they are still investigating any possibilities the crime was hate-motivated.

The women's father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said police told him each was shot in the head in the couple's apartment and that he is convinced it was a hate crime.

"We are definitely certain that our daughters were targeted for their religion," the women's father, Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "This is a moment of truth. I have just viewed their bodies."

The killings are fueling outrage among people who blame anti-Muslim rhetoric for hate crimes. A Muslim advocacy organization pressed authorities to investigate possible religious bias. Many posted social media updates with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter.

"We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case," Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said in an email Wednesday.

Saying the crime appeared to be an isolated incident, Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said his office was monitoring the investigation. Meanwhile, the FBI is helping investigators analyze evidence, and a spokeswoman said Thursday that it has opened a "parallel preliminary inquiry" to determine whether any federal laws were violated.

Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha also said he had urged law enforcement to look beyond their explanation of a spat.

"This is not a parking dispute," he said. "These children were executed with shots in the back of the head."

He said his older daughter had expressed concern about a neighbor of whom she was afraid.

"(She) felt that he was hateful and he did not like them, who they were and the way they looked," Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha said.

Thousands remember victims at UNC vigil

About 2,000 people also attended a candlelight vigil for the victims Wednesday evening in The Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill. Several people who knew them spoke about their selflessness as friends recounted kindnesses they had extended to others through the years.

Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha helped the homeless and raised money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey. They met while helping to run the Muslim Student Association at N.C. State before he went to dental school at UNC. Yusor Abu-Salha, who graduated in December, planned to join her husband in dentistry school in the fall.

"This was like the power couple of our community," said Ali Sajjad, 21, the N.C. State association's current president.

Razan Abu-Salha was visiting them Tuesday from Raleigh, where she was majoring in design at N.C. State.

A vigil was been planned in The Brickyard on N.C. State's campus at 6 p.m. Thursday. As of noon Thursday, more than 1400 people on Facebook indicated plans to attend.

Wednesday night, the Wolfpack honored the victims with a moment of silence before its men's basketball game against the University of Virginia, and students wore green ribbons in their memory.

Starting freshman forward Abdul-Malik Abu, also a Muslim, knew Barakat and Mohammad.

Abu posted a photo on Instagram of himself with the couple earlier Wednesday, with a caption saying he attended their wedding and thanking Barakat for showing "unconditional love."

After the game, Abu said he met Barakat during his recruiting visit.

"He was one of the people that you see that make an impact on your life right away with his happiness, his joy, his support for me before I got to State," Abu said. "Then when I got to State, always excited to see me, always ready to spread good and positive vibes. He ran many charities. Overall, he was just a world-class person."

Vigils were also been planned for Thursday in Washington, D.C., and at Durham Technical Community College, where the suspect had studied.

20 Comments

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  • John Titor Feb 13, 2015
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    I think it is truly comical that I have not seen 1 vigil with all these so-called mourners in reference to the 100's of homeless and less fortunate people in this state alone being killed on a daily basis...
    Where is ya'lls bleeding heart for them?

  • Wayne R. Douglas Feb 13, 2015
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    Every gun owner is against gun violence. That's the main reason to be a "legally registered gun owner". What you are trying to mold into your argument, is that it's always because of the "legally registered gun owners" that violent gun crimes are committed. This is blatantly incorrect. Yes, there are a few occasions, where legal gun owners commit crimes, yet the vast majority of gun violence is committed by illegally owning and carrying of a gun. I will freely admit that some "legal" gun owners, should not be allowed to own a gun. The question is how to spot those people. More gun laws, is not the answer. I am not entirely sure what the answer is, but more restriction, is not. If someone can figure out what is the answer, I will back them 100%.

  • Alexia Proper Feb 12, 2015
    user avatar

    What the heck is wrong with WRAL? Why keep referring to these people as slain Muslims? Isn't that just a little disrespectful? If me and my family are guned down, I would hope you refer to us as three people, not 3 Muslims, whites, Christians, or any other title.

  • Peter Panda Feb 12, 2015
    user avatar

    Why don't as many people mourn all of the other senseless killings too?

  • Floyd Bridges Feb 12, 2015
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    Very true. Part of the reason is ratings, page views or whatever metric is used to determine how much a media outlet charges advertisers. The more you stir, the greater the profit.

    It's ironic that a typical town only had three or at most four TV stations and a newspaper for news 40 years ago. Now we have more news outlets that you can shake a stick at, yet somehow we have less news.

  • Jeff Johnson Feb 12, 2015
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    Because you associated with the wrong people. Everyone I know who is a gun owner detests gun violence. Hunting and self-protection are their and my main interest.
    But then again, a gun-hater in sheeps clothing is certainly associating with the wrong crowd.

  • Jeff Johnson Feb 12, 2015
    user avatar

    Three young people were killed, that is heinous crime. What I don't understand is the focus on their religious belief. I don't remember seeing a reference to the murder of college students termed as 'Christian students' murdered. The media seems to love accenting anything that will stir the pot. "News" needs to be factually based, not sensationalized.

  • Floyd Bridges Feb 12, 2015
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    I see where you are coming from. I just like to give our Muslim neighbors here in the US the benefit of doubt. Most are Americans too.

  • Floyd Bridges Feb 12, 2015
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    I'm interested in knowing which "numbers"? And even if this is true, you are coming very close to using that as a justification of Islamic jihadists' large-scale murder. BTW, I am not right wing.

    Respecting human life is something both the American political left and right agree upon.

  • Christopher Rose Feb 12, 2015
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    Um most on the left, including myself feel the same way about conservative Islamic theocracies as we do about the christian conservative theocracy some would love to have foisted upon us here. Killing in no matter who's name is wrong. And shoudl be punished accordingly. And yes we need a miltary. And I think with a few bad apple exceptions our service members are hard working sacrificing people worthy of great honor for their service. That said I recall a time int eh world when the christian religion created about as much carnage. Just ask any native American in south and central America about that. The vast majority of muslims do not kill people. Nor would they advocate that. I know it's a lot simpler in your world to lump everybody together. Islam is no more the problem than Christiantiy was the problem during the crusades or the conquistadores. It's the men who sin in the name of god that are the problem. End of Story.

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