Alongside Grief, Questions of Motive Follow Slaying of Muslim Family

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Alongside Grief, Questions of Motive Follow Slaying of Muslim Family

Though definitive motivation behind shooting death of three students has not been determined, the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag reveals many believe killer may have targeted victims over religious beliefs

Deah Barakat, 23, left, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. All three were murdered on Tuesday in what may have been an anti-religious hate crime. (Social media photo of the victims)

Update (10:21 AM EST):

The Chapel Hill Police Department has released a preliminary statement on Wednesday morning regarding the progress of their investigation into the killing of three local residents on Tuesday. The statement confirmed that the suspect in the shooting, identified as Craig Stephen Hicks, remains in police custody and has so far been cooperative with investigators.  The police update continues:

Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.  Hicks is cooperating with investigators and more information may be released at a later time.

“Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act.  We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.  Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these young people who lost their lives so needlessly,” said Chief Chris Blue of the Chapel Hill Police Department.

Earlier (7:45 AM EST):

Some of the emerging details surrounding the killing of three Muslim university students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Tuesday night have sparked worries the crime may have been motivated by the victims' faith.

The three victims, all members of the same family, have been identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. All three were in the same condominium not far from the University of North Carolina when they were shot, reportedly "execution style." According to the Washington Post, "All three were pronounced dead at the scene when police arrived shortly after 5 p.m. EST."

The accused gunman, who reportedly turned himself into police after the shooting, has been identified as 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks. Local news outlets report that Hicks and the victims were neighbors, living in the same quiet neighborhood.

According to the Raleigh News & Observer:

As news of Tuesday’s murders spread through the international Muslim community, many turned to Facebook and Twitter to share their grief. A Facebook community – Our Three Winners  – was started early Wednesday to share news and memories of the students."

"Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord," the community’s creators state. "They have set an example in life and in death."

Though law enforcement officials have so far not discussed the possible motivations for the killings, media outlets are reporting social media accounts tied to Hicks' name have posted comments contesting the religious beliefs of others.

According to The Independent:

As tributes poured in for the young family, a Facebook page in Hicks’ name showed that he read paralegal studies at Durham Technical Community College and described himself as a supporter of “Atheists for Equality”.

Rregular social media user, his last three posts were a cute dog video about the Pavlov effect, a viral advert for Air New Zealand involving mountain bikes, and a picture from United Atheists of America asking “why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others’ influence when they agree about so many ideological issues”.

TV programmes liked by Hicks include The Atheist Experience, Criminal Minds and Friends, while he describes himself as a fan of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

And CNN reported:

In one post widely shared online, Hicks, who claimed he is an atheist, allegedly wrote: "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I."

CNN couldn't independently confirm the authenticity of the post or his Facebook page.

The Washington Post reported, "The killings sparked outrage on Twitter, where users argued the three had been killed because of their religion. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter sprung up overnight, a response to what users saw as the media’s failure to cover the shooting."

The hashtag continues to host discussion on the killings and its implications:

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

In Chapel Hill, the community members who knew Barakat, his wife, and sister-in-law expressed grief and shock over the shooting.

According to the Post:

The victims were described as well-liked in their community. Barakat, a dental student at UNC, was a volunteer for the Miswak Foundation, which provides dental care in impoverished countries. His most recent Facebook post showed him handing out dental supplies to homeless people in downtown Durham.

He was also active on social media; a tweet he posted last month has been picked up and re-tweeted hundreds of times in the last few hours.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mohammad, who was planning to become a dental student, also volunteered with a local dental clinic. She and Barakat married in December, according to her Facebook page.

In a Facebook post, Barakat’s brother Farris mourned the three deaths.

“I haven’t even begun to fully comprehend what has happened. But I know for sure those three together have done so much we are all proud of. No reason to stop being proud now,” he wrote. “God is great. God is greater.”

And the News & Observers added:

Both [Barakat] and Abu-Salha advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East. On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year.

Barakat was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee students for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics.

Hours after the murders, more than $8,200 had been donated to the online campaign for "Project: Refuge Smiles," ( nando.com/xk) which Barakat was spearheading. The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry and the Syrian-American Medical Society are helping to organize the trip.

At last count Wednesday morning, the campaign had surpassed its $20,000 goal by $892 and with 170 days to spare.

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