Imam Akonjee Imam Akonjee

NEW YORK: A gunman shot and killed a New York imam and his assistant near their mosque in the borough of Queens during a brazen attack in broad daylight Saturday.

Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and his assistant, 64-year-old Thara Uddin, were shot just before 2 pm in the Ozone Park neighborhood, police said. The attack reportedly took place after the two, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, left the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque following Saturday afternoon prayers. The motive is unknown and no arrests have been made, the authorities said.

“There is nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith,” police told journalists. However, Muslim community representatives pointed to growing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by a series of deadly attacks in the United States and abroad as well as hostile statements by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, including his proposal for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

The suspected gunman approached the two men from behind at the corner of Liberty Avenue and 79th Street. Witnesses then saw him fleeing the scene with a gun, police said, adding that surveillance video appeared to show a man wearing shorts and a dark polo shirt. A sketch of the suspect released early Sunday showed a dark-haired, bearded man wearing glasses. Police said witnesses described him as having a medium complexion.

Police said that Akonjee was carrying more than $1,000, but that the attacker did not take the money. Both victims were taken to nearby Jamaica Hospital with gunshot wounds and were pronounced dead there. The suspect was still at large Sunday morning and the investigation is ongoing, police said. The working-class area where the victims were killed, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is home to many Muslim families from Bangladesh.

“The NYPD is looking at all angles of this crime, including the hate crime (angle),” Sarah Sayeed of the New York mayor’s office said. However, Muslim community representatives condemned what they see as a toxic climate of hatred. “Please, read my lips. This is a hate crime, no matter which way you look at it,” Kobir Chowdhury, who heads the nearby Masjid Al-Aman mosque in Brooklyn, said. “It’s hate against humanity, it’s hate against Muslims, these are Islamophobes who are causing these kind of troubles.” Hundreds of local residents rallied near the crime scene chanting, “We want justice!”

During a vigil outside the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque, the faithful prayed, heads bent and palms facing the sky. “Imagine your father gunned down for no reason, and then let that feeling, let that motivate you to come out of your silence,” Afaf Nasher, director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said at a tense news conference in front of the mosque. “When we stay silent we allow crimes to continue to occur,” she said. “So every single one of us shares in this responsibility. And let’s not forget the victims who are essential to all of this.”

Imam Akonjee had moved to the United States from Bangladesh two years ago, US media reported. “He would not hurt a fly,” his nephew Rahi Majid, told the New York Daily News. “You would watch him come down the street and watch the peace he brings.” US Representative Nydia Velazquez tweeted that she was “horrified” by the shooting.

“All NYers must stand united in condemning acts like these,” she said. The neighborhood’s city council representative Eric Ulrich tweeted that he stood “in strong solidarity with all Muslim New Yorkers tonight as we mourn the killings”. “When a religious leader is killed in broad daylight on the streets of Queens, we must come together as a community and demand justice!” he wrote. Last year, hate crimes against Muslims and mosques across the country tripled following extremist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the New York Times reported. – AFP