Hunt for killer of NY mosque leader

People gather for a demonstration near a crime scene after Imam Maulama Akonjee and his friend Thara Uddin were fatally shot. Photo / AP
People gather for a demonstration near a crime scene after Imam Maulama Akonjee and his friend Thara Uddin were fatally shot. Photo / AP

An imam and a second community leader were killed after leaving their mosque in Queens, New York, in a brazen daylight shooting that members of the local community believe was a hate crime.

The New York Police Department identified one victim as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55. According to AP, the second victim was Thara Uddin, 64, who assisted Akonjee at the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque. Both were shot in the head by a man who approached them from behind, police said.

The NYPD said that officers do not believe the imam and his associate were targeted because of their Muslim faith.

"At this time, it does not look like it has anything to do with their race or their religion," Officer Tiffany Phillips told the Washington Post. Phillips would not say what police believe might be the motive for the shooting, or what evidence led officers to believe religion was not a likely factor.

Police said the two men were shot at about 1.50pm local time at the corner of Liberty Avenue and 79th Street, three blocks from the mosque. Phillips said the men were apparently coming from the mosque when they were attacked.

Police have interviewed witnesses and have watched surveillance video of a man approaching the victims from behind and fleeing after the shooting, but have made no arrests.

Members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community served by the mosque expressed fears that whoever killed the two men had targeted Muslims, and they called on authorities to treat the shootings as a hate crime. Scores of people attending a rally at the shooting site chanted, "We want justice!"

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, held a news conference near the shooting scene, where Kobir Chowdhury, a leader at another local mosque, said, "Read my lips: This is a hate crime" directed at Islam.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has been accused of exploiting fears of Islamist attacks for political ends, was rounded on by members of the community.

In the wake of last December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 people dead, Trump pledged to ban Muslims entering the United States. The slaughter of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the wave of terrorist outrages in Europe have also regularly been used by Trump as evidence of a need for America to change its immigration policies.

Imam Maulama Akonjee. Photo / AP
Imam Maulama Akonjee. Photo / AP

"That's not what America is about," said local resident Khairul Islam, 33. "We blame Donald Trump for this ... Trump and his drama has created Islamophobia."

The Imam's daughter said her father had no enemies. Naima Akonjee said he didn't have "any problems with anyone".

Shahin Chowdhury, a worshipper at the mosque, told AP that members of the community had felt animosity lately and had heard people cursing while passing the mosque. Chowdhury said he had advised fellow community members to be careful walking around, especially when in traditional clothing.

He called the imam a "wonderful person" with a voice that made his Koran readings especially compelling.

Sarah Sayeed, a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio's staff, serves as a liaison to Muslim communities. She attended the rally and said: "I understand the fear because I feel it myself. I understand the anger. But it's very important to mount a thorough investigation".

Khaled Rahman, who also was there, said he believes the shootings were an attack "against our religion" and he hopes police increase security around mosques. Worshipper Millat Uddin said Akonjee had led the mosque for about two years and was a very pious man. "The community's heart is totally broken," said Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin. "It's a great loss to the community and it's a great loss to the society."

Neighbours also described Thara Uddin as a pious and thoughtful man who prayed five times a day and went to the mosque. While at home, they said he would water his garden and one next door. "A very honest, wise man ... (And) a very helpful guy," said neighbour Mohammed Uddin, who is no relation.

The Bangladeshi community is one of the fastest growing in America, according to one estimate there could be as many as 100,000 in New York City.

- Washington Post, AP, Telegraph Group Ltd

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