NEW YORK – The daylight slaying of a mosque leader and his associate set off fear and anguish Sunday among Bangladeshi Muslims in a New York City neighborhood, with some saying the killings appear to be an anti-Muslim hate crime. But police said there is no evidence so far to support that.
Police hunted for the gunman who killed Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, near the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Queens as they left afternoon prayers Saturday in their traditional religious attire. Both men were shot in the head.
"This was a hate crime. One hundred percent, there's no doubt about it," said Monir Chowdhury, who worshipped daily with the two men.
He said he had moved to the community because of its large Bangladeshi immigrant population, but in recent months has been harassed by people shouting anti-Muslim epithets.
In one incident, a man called him "Osama" as he walked to the mosque with his 3-year-old son. With the killer still on the loose, Chowdhury decided it would be best to drive to prayer services.
"A lot of neighbors said, 'Hey, don't take your kid with you,'" he said. "People, they just hate us."
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. A person who lives near the shooting scene showed The Associated Press and other media organizations a video that showed a man walking up behind the imam and his associate, shooting the men in the head and then walking off. Police said they were reviewing the video.
Investigators said they have not established a motive in the attack. On Saturday, Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner said there was "nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith." Akonjee was carrying about $1,000 in cash that was not taken during the shooting, police said. Akonjee's son said it wasn't uncommon for his father to carry that amount of money.
On Sunday, neighbors in the Ozone Park section were skeptical of what police had found so far.
"We're scared now to walk in the street," said Gousuddin Khan, who worships at the mosque. "Every time we get trouble, we get promises from elected officials, but after they finish that, we don't get any kind of justice." Khan said there needs to be more police officers patrolling the area. On Sunday afternoon, several officers were stationed outside the mosque.
Chowdhury said he has felt the mood in the neighborhood change drastically in the last few months and accused Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump of spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric.
"This neighborhood is getting crazy because of this election and Trump. He hates Muslims," he said. "I love this neighborhood and now I'm scared."
Trump's campaign said in a statement that it was "highly irresponsible" to blame a political candidate for the violent attacks.
In a statement Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said that "when religious leaders are targeted, we all bear the pain those in Ozone Park feel most personally today."
Bangladesh's State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Shahriar Alam, said the shooting was a "cowardly act on peace-loving people." The U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, said Akonjee "stood for peace."
Mashuk Uddin just couldn't believe it was true, shaking as he heard the news that his brother, Thara, a devout Muslim, had been gunned down. He said he was still planning a funeral Sunday evening.
Akonjee's son, Naim Akonjee, 21, said his father first worked as an imam in the Bronx before working at two mosques in Queens and put his family first.
"He always wants peace," he said of his father through tears. "Why did they kill my father?"