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Obama denounces ‘outrageous’ murders of Muslim students as FBI opens probe

(RNS) The FBI is examining whether federal laws were violated in the fatal shootings of three Muslim students in North Carolina that police believe stemmed from a long-standing dispute over parking at a Chapel Hill apartment complex.

The victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, a 23-year-old dental student; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh, were buried Thursday (Feb. 12) following a funeral in Raleigh that drew more than 5,000 mourners.

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, a neighbor in the apartment complex, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

On Friday, President Obama denounced the “brutal and outrageous murders,” and said “no one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.”

The killings have prompted a wave of concern in the community, and nationally, over whether their deaths resulted from anti-Muslim bias.

The crowd at Thursday’s funeral was so large the services had to be moved from a mosque to a nearby athletic field.

In an emotional speech, Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, father of two of the victims, called on President Obama and the FBI to examine the motivation behind the killings, which he said “has hate crime written all over it.”

“If they don’t listen carefully I will yell, and everybody else will,” he said. “All honest Americans, they’re all here – white and black, and all colors and shapes. So let’s stand up – real and honest – and see what these three children were martyred about. It was not about a parking spot.”

The FBI, which was already processing evidence from the crime scene, announced Thursday that it had “opened a parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether any federal laws were violated.”

U.S. Attorney Ripley Rand, the district’s top federal prosecutor, had said Wednesday that there was no immediate evidence Muslims were being targeted.

Chapel Hill police are also investigating whether the killings involved a hate crime but say a preliminary investigation points to a long-simmering spat over parking.

A woman who lives near the scene of the shootings described Hicks as short-tempered. “Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or myself, he was angry,” Samantha Maness said of Hicks. “He was very angry any time I saw him.”

Hicks’ ex-wife, Cynthia Hurley, said that before they divorced about 17 years ago, his favorite movie was “Falling Down,” the 1993 Michael Douglas film about a divorced unemployed engineer who goes on a shooting rampage.

“That always freaked me out,” Hurley said. “He watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all.”

Family and friends of the victims remembered them as outgoing and optimistic young adults working to make the world a better place.

Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were newlyweds who met while helping to run a Muslim student association before Barakat moved to Chapel Hill to study dentistry at UNC. Yusor, who graduated in December, planned to enroll in the dental school in the fall. Razan Abu-Salha, her sister, was still at N.C. State, and was visiting from Raleigh when they were killed.

The couple had planned to travel to Rihaniya, Turkey, this summer to provide free dental care for Syrian refugee schoolchildren. To offset the costs, Barakat posted a video on a fundraising website seeking $20,000 in donations. Contributions surged after their deaths, to more than $250,000 by Thursday.

Barakat’s family was from Syria, although he was born in the U.S. Yusor Abu-Salha was born in Jordan and came to the U.S. with her family as a young girl.

In an interview recorded last year as part of the StoryCorps project and broadcast by North Carolina Public Radio on Thursday, she expressed gratitude for her adopted homeland.

“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” she said. “And, you know, although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there’s still so many ways I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. That’s the beautiful thing here, is that I doesn’t matter where you come from. There are so many people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions. But here we’re all one, one culture.”

(Doug Stanglin writes for USA Today. Rad Berky of WCNC-TV in Charlotte and The Associated Press contributed to this report.) Photo courtesy of Omid Safi

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