WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners attended the funeral prayers on Thursday for three young Muslims killed in North Carolina, and the father of two of the victims urged U.S. authorities to probe whether religious hatred was a motive for the murders.
Newlywed Deah Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, a student at North Carolina State University, were gunned down on Tuesday in a condominium about two miles (three km) from the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.
Police charged the couple’s neighbour, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with murder. Investigators say initial findings indicate a dispute over parking prompted the shooting, but they are looking into whether Hicks was motivated by hatred towards the victims because they were Muslim.
The case has garnered international attention and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan criticized President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday for not speaking about the incident.
“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you,” Erdogan, a devout Muslim who often advocates a larger role for Islam in public life in his country, said during a visit to Mexico.
The murders in North Carolina have prompted vigils and the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter on social media, and raised concerns among some Muslim advocates in the United States who say they have seen an increase in threats against their communities in recent weeks.
Speaking to mourners in a field near a mosque in Raleigh, the women’s father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, called on Obama to insist that the FBI investigate the case as a possible hate crime.
“This has hate crime written all over it,” he said. “If they don’t listen carefully, I will yell.”
He said the victims’ families did not want revenge or care about Hicks’ punishment, but rather sought to ensure that other young people in the United States would not suffer similar violence.
“This is Islam, these three individuals who never had a fight in their lives,” the father said.
The FBI designates as hate crimes those that are motivated or partly motivated by bias against race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Such crimes generally carry greater penalties.
According to FBI statistics, U.S. law enforcement agencies reported roughly 6,900 offences motivated by bias in 2013. Of those, 165 offences were crimes resulting from bias against Muslims, though none were murdered, the data shows.
Hicks’ wife and some neighbours have said he appeared angry about parking at the condominium where he lived, not motivated by hatred of Muslims.
A paralegal student at Durham Technical Community College since 2012, Hicks portrayed himself on Facebook as an atheist and filled his social media page with anti-religion posts.
Neighbour Samantha Maness, 25, said he was known in the condo community as someone quick to anger over parking troubles and noise. He had confronted her and friends in the past when he thought they were being too loud, she said.
She said she never saw him show any animosity along religious or racial lines, describing his behaviour as “equal opportunity anger towards the residents here.”
The suspect’s wife of seven years, Karen Hicks, told news station WRAL she believed her husband grew upset when he returned home from school on Tuesday and found someone in his designated parking space.
She suspects something in him “snapped the wrong way,” she said in a videotaped interview.
Police in Chapel Hill had not released any new details about their investigation on Thursday.
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Additional reporting by Alberto Fajardo in Mexico City; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman