HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, N.J. – Appealing for calm and understanding after the murder of an Egyptian Christian family last month, Muslim and Christian leaders rejected religious hatred and called for unity.
Although the gathering Sunday had been planned months in advance, the murders of Hossam Armanious (search), his wife and two young children became the focus of many participants at the American Muslim Union's (search) annual community brunch.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Armanious, a Coptic Christian, might have angered Muslims with his postings under the name "I Love Jesus" in an Internet chat room, leading to the killings.
But they also caution that robbery was a possible motive because the home was ransacked and money was taken from the victims, and no solid evidence tying the crimes to religious hatred has been established.
"Whoever is putting the idea out that it was a Muslim who did this has their own agenda," said Fuad Issa, of Piscataway. "I don't believe it for a second. There's nothing right about creating dissension; I don't understand those motives."
Likewise, the Rev. Randall Day, pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Teaneck and vice president of the Teaneck Clergy Council (search), said the killings have damaged goodwill between Muslims and Christians that took generations to build up.
"Not only did these murders end those four lives, but they threaten a vision and a dream of a possibility of living together peacefully, which is the strong desire of many people in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities," he said.
The bodies of Armanious, 47, his 37-year-old wife, Amal Garas, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were discovered Jan. 14 in the family's home. They had been bound and gagged, and each was stabbed repeatedly in the neck and head.
The murders spread fear throughout the region's Coptic Christian community and spurred tensions that erupted in scuffles and anti-Islam slogans being shouted during the family's funeral.
"It reminded me of a mini-9/11," said Aref Assaf, president of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (search). "It shows how quick people are to jump to conclusions and categorize entire communities based on faulty assumptions."
Organizers of Sunday's event said it is more important than ever to look for things that unite people instead of divide them.
"America stands for freedom of faith and worship," said Mohammed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union and an elder in Paterson's Muslim community. "It is time for all of us — Jewish, Christian or Muslim — to stand up against anyone that tries to separate us by our beliefs."