A candlelight vigil was held on the evening of February 11 night on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three Muslim students shot to death in what friends and family insist was a hate crime. Thousands of students gathered on the grounds of the university to pay tribute to newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat and his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and Yusor's sister, 19-year-old Razan Abu-Salha, who were murdered on February 10 at an apartment complex off campus.
A neighbor, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with first-degree murder in the connection with the killings. Police assert that a long-simmering dispute over parking space at the complex sparked the shootings, but Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the slain women, said on February 11 he believes the shootings to be a hate crime. He said Hicks had confronted his daughter and her husband a few times while carrying a gun on his belt. Hicks had declared himself an atheist in several Facebook postings and had also depicted firearms.
A Twitter campaign using the hashtag "#MuslimLivesMatter" that was launched to draw national media attention to the tragedy attracted supporters from across the globe, many angrily claiming it was being ignored because the victims were Muslim; one poster tweeted that "Muslims only newsworthy when behind the gun, not in front."
Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations are calling on police to investigate the shootings as a hate crime. Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue issued a statement saying investigators are exploring what could have motivated Hicks to commit such a "senseless and tragic act."
"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," he said.
Ripley Rand, a federal prosecutor whose district includes Chapel Hill, said on February 11 the shootings appeared to be an isolated incident, and not part of a campaign against the Muslim community.
Hicks, who was studying to become a paralegal, had posted anti-religious statements on his Facebook page, and recently posted a picture of a handgun. But his wife insisted during a news conference on February 11 the murders "had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith," adding that her husband was a strong supporter of gay and abortion rights.
Twenty-three-year-old Barakat was a second-year dentistry student at the university, while 21-year-old Yusor Abu-Salha was scheduled to join her husband as a dental student in the fall. Razan Abu-Salha was visiting her sister and brother-in-law from Raleigh, where she was a student at North Carolina State University. Barakat had recently made a video appeal for funding a medical mission to serve Syrian refugees.
Liban Abdikarim, a Somali-American student who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Deah Barakat, told the Somali Service of the Voice of America that the trio were "leaders" in the Chapel Hill and Raleigh communities. Barakat worked with a charity that provided dental supplies to the poor, and had launched a campaign to raise money for a humanitarian trip to Turkey to provide dental care to refugees from the civil war in Syria.
Commenting on the tragedy, Ray Hanania of The Arab Daily News wrote" Three Arab Muslim students living in a region of growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim anger were found slaughtered Tuesday night in Chapel Hill by a White man whose motives have not yet been determined by police. But the community is wondering whether or not this is another example of a racist hate crime by mainstream White America."
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