New York police are working to track down the gunman who fatally shot the leader of a mosque in Queens and his associate on Saturday as they were walking home from afternoon prayers.
Meanwhile, members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community are mourning the death of Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his friend Thara Uddin, 64. They’re calling on the police to investigate the killings as a hate crime.
Police said in a statement that the two men were shot in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens. The killings have sent shock waves through the neighborhood, which is “an enclave that area leaders described as a growing hub of Muslim families from Bangladesh that straddles the border between Brooklyn and Queens,” The New York Times reported.
The men were “approached from behind by what witnesses and video surveillance shows, a male with medium complexion dressed in a dark polo shirt and shorts,” police said. The suspect was later seen fleeing the scene, holding a gun.
On Sunday, police released this sketch of the suspect and asked the members of the public to come forward with any information:
The two men died after being transferred to a local hospital.
Police have not identified a motive for the killings, and said “they did not know whether it was related to a botched robbery, a dispute or anything tied to their religion or race,” the Times reported. Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner told the newspaper that “there’s nothing in the preliminary investigation that would indicate they were targeted by their faith.”
Both men were wearing “traditional religious attire,” as The Associated Press reported, and Akonjee “was carrying about $1,000 in cash but the money was not taken.”
The imam’s daughter Naima Akonjee told the wire service that the pair “were close friends who always walked together to the mosque from their homes on the same street.” Worshipper Shahin Chowdhury said Akonjee was a “‘wonderful person’ with a voice that made his Quran readings especially compelling.”
The area’s Muslim community held a rally on Saturday night, calling for justice. “This is a hate crime no matter which way you look at it,” said Kobir Chowdhury, who leads another local mosque, as WCBS reported. “It’s hate against humanity, it’s hate against Muslims.”
Speaking to the crowd, Zead Ramadan, the Chairman of New York’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, linked the killings to comments from Donald Trump.
“We live in an era where people running for the highest office in the land … and potentially being the most powerful people in the world, espousing hate towards Muslims even in their own country, even citizens of their own country,” said Ramadan, according to the BBC. “This sort of Islamophobia and this hatred toward Muslims is now mushrooming.”
According to the Times, “In the United States, there has been an average of 12.6 suspected anti-Muslim hate crimes a month in recent years, according to an analysis of F.B.I. statistics, but that number appeared to spike late last year.”