NEW YORK, Aug 14, (Agencies): A Muslim cleric and an associate were fatally shot by a lone gunman on Saturday while walking together following afternoon prayers at a mosque in the New York City borough of Queens, authorities said.
The gunman approached the men from behind and shot both in the head at close range at about 1:50 pm EDT (1750 GMT) on a blistering hot afternoon in the Ozone Park neighborhood, police said in a statement, adding that no arrests had been made.
The motive for the shooting was not immediately known and no evidence has been uncovered that the two men were targeted because of their faith, said Tiffany Phillips, a spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department. Even so, police were not ruling out any possibility, she added.
The victims, identified as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, were both wearing religious garb at the time of shooting, police said. Police had initially identified Uddin as Tharam. The men were transported to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center where they died, hospital spokesman Andrew Rubin said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group known by the acronym CAIR, said Uddin was an associate of the imam.
“These were two very beloved people,” Afaf Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of CAIR, told Reuters. “These were community leaders. “There is a deep sense of mourning and an overwhelming cry for justice to be served,” Nasher said. “There is a very loud cry, too, for the NYPD to investigate fully, with the total amount of their resources, the incident that happened today.” The organization held a news conference on Saturday evening in front of the mosque, the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid, where the two men had prayed. “We are calling for all people, of all faiths, to rally with compassion and with a sense of vigilance so that justice can be served,” Nasher said. “You can’t go up to a person and shoot them in the head and not be motivated by hatred.” The suspect was seen by witnesses fleeing the scene with a gun in his hand, police said. “We are currently conducting an extensive canvass of the area for video and additional witnesses,” Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner said in a statement. Eric Phillips, a press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the mayor was closely monitoring the police investigation into the shootings.
“While it is too early to tell what led to these murders, it is certain that the NYPD will stop at nothing to ensure justice is served,” Phillips said in a statement. Akonjee was described as a peaceful man who was beloved within Ozone Park’s large Muslim community. “He would not hurt a fly,” his nephew Rahi Majid, 26, told the New York Daily News. “You would watch him come down the street and watch the peace he brings.” Video footage posted on YouTube showed dozens of men gathered near the site of the shooting, with one of them telling the crowd that it appeared to be a hate crime, even as police said the motive was still unknown. “We feel really insecure and unsafe in a moment like this,” Millat Uddin, an Ozone Park resident told CBS television in New York. “It’s really threatening to us, threatening to our future, threatening to our mobility in our neighborhood, and we’re looking for the justice.” In June, CAIR issued a statement calling for Muslim community leaders to consider increasing security after the Orlando massacre and incidents that it said had targeted Muslims and Islamic houses of worship. A gunman who called himself an “Islamic soldier” killed 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub on June 12. “There is nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith,” police told journalists. But Sarah Sayeed of the New York mayor’s office insisted that “the NYPD is looking at all angles of this crime, including the hate crime (angle).” Kobir Chowdhury, who heads the nearby Masjid Al-Aman mosque in Brooklyn, said: “Please, read my lips. This is a hate crime, no matter which way you look at it. “It’s hate against humanity, it’s hate against Muslims, these are Islamophobes who are causing these kind of troubles.” During a vigil, the faithful prayed outside the mosque, heads bent and their palms facing the sky. “Imagine your father gunned down for no reason, and then let that feeling, let that motivate you to come out of your silence,” Afaf Nasher, the director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations, said at a tense press conference in front of the mosque. “When we stay silent we allow crimes to continue to occur,” she said. “So every single one of us shares in this responsibility. And let’s not forget the victims who are essential to all of this.” US Representative Nydia Velazquez said in a tweet that she was “horrified” by the shooting. “All NYers must stand united in condemning acts like these,” she added. The neighborhood’s city council representative Eric Ulrich tweeted that he stood “in strong solidarity with all Muslim New Yorkers tonight as we mourn the killings.” “When a religious leader is killed in broad daylight on the streets of Queens, we must come together as a community and demand justice!” he wrote. As night fell, a few hundred people gathered near the scene of the fatal shooting, many of them yelling “we want justice.”
Police in New York City are searching for the man who fatally shot the leader of a mosque and a friend as they left afternoon prayers, setting off fear and anguish among the community’s Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. “There’s nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith,” said Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner of the New York Police Department. The imam’s daughter, Naima Akonjee, said her father — described by worshippers as a pious man who gave compelling readings from the Quran — didn’t “have any problems with anyone.” She said the imam and Uddin were close friends who always walked together to the mosque from their homes on the same street. Police said the men were shot in the head as they left the mosque in the Ozone Park section of Queens shortly before 2 pm They later were pronounced dead. Sautner said that video surveillance showed they were approached from behind by a man a man in a dark polo shirt and shorts who shot them and then fled south on 79th Street with the gun still in his hand. Police released a sketch early Sunday of a dark-haired, bearded man wearing glasses. Police said witnesses described the shooter as a man with a medium complexion.