As thousands of mourners prayed for the three Muslim-American students killed in Chapel Hill this week, the FBI opened its own investigation into the case Thursday.
In a brief news release late in the day, the FBI said it had launched “a parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case.” The FBI had previously been called in to assist the Chapel Hill police in processing evidence from the crime scene; the new inquiry could broaden the case’s jurisdiction and potentially bolster the charges against the suspect.
The FBI’s announcement came hours after a somber funeral, where 5,500 mourners gathered at N.C. State University. Crowds knelt on a large blue tarp spread on a university soccer field across the street from an Islamic center in West Raleigh.
Three caskets – one gray, one white, one silver – were carried on the shoulders of men who chanted as they entered the field. The caskets were placed on the field, an imam sang the call to prayer and the crowd fell silent. There were several separate prayers, and the mourners bowed down, placing their heads to the ground.
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Afterward, the three were buried in an Islamic cemetery near Wendell.
Newlywed Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were killed in a shooting Tuesday in Chapel Hill. A neighbor of Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Police have said a parking dispute may have led to the slayings, though families think the motive involved animosity based on the victims’ Muslim faith.
The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, took the stage at the funeral and called on President Barack Obama to have the FBI carefully examine the motivation behind the slayings.
“This has hate crime written all over it,” Abu-Salha said, his voice rising.
‘Let’s stand up’
He added: “If they don’t listen carefully I will yell, and everybody else will. All honest Americans, they’re all here – white and black, and all colors and shapes. So let’s stand up – real and honest – and see what these three children were martyred about. It was not about a parking spot.”
Abu-Salha said this is not about revenge or punishment but about protecting every other child of any faith or ethnic background.
He asked the mourners to remember and celebrate the three students, and he injected a bit of humor when he described them as “die-hard Wolfpack” fans who didn’t mind taunting their Tar Heel friends.
Abu-Salha called the recent marriage of Barakat and his daughter Yusor in December “a wedding in heaven.” He described his younger daughter Razan as a breeze.
“She walked on this earth lighter than air,” Abu-Salha said. “She loved everybody and everything, and the beauty in nature, animals, design, pets, humans.”
Nouman Siddiqui, who spoke at the event, said the Islamic community is proud that the three are being united with their creator. To those who had seen their smiles, their selflessness and what they did for humankind, Siddiqui said, then “you saw the beauty of Islam.”
He went on to urge the crowd to pray for the Barakat and Abu-Salha families.
The deaths have prompted an international outpouring of grief and support of the Muslim community. A group of representatives from local and national Muslim organizations attended and urged people to carry on the students’ legacy of love and concern for others.
‘Grief and shock’
They issued a joint statement: “These three young people were exemplary members of the community, contributing to various humanitarian causes, including helping provide free dental services to homeless people in the Triangle area, and working with international refugees. Our community is reeling from the loss of these three outstanding youth who positively impacted the lives of those around them. We are in a state of grief and shock.”
Mourners described Thursday’s service as powerful and uplifting. But many friends were too shaken to talk about it.
Sirageldin Osman, a retired professor at N.C. Central University in Durham, said his son played basketball with Barakat.
“You never see him without a smile, never, never all his life,” Osman said. “It’s a big loss for the community, for his father and mother ... for the whole community, for the United States. ... It’s very sad that we’ve seen three people slaughtered like that.”