Police hunt killer of New York imam and his assistant

The shooting of Maulama Akonjee, 55, and 64-year-old Thara Uddin near the Al Furqan Jame Masjid mosque sparked fears among community members that the killings could be rooted in intolerance.

New York police department crime scene investigators photograph evidence  on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, in the Queens borough of New York, after the leader of a mosque and an associate were shot dead as they left afternoon prayers. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Powered by automated translation

NEW YORK // A gunman shot and killed a New York imam and his assistant near their mosque in the borough of Queens setting off fear and anguish among the community’s Bangladeshi Muslims.

Although police said no motive had been established for the killing of Maulama Akonjee, 55, and 64-year-old Thara Uddin on Saturday afternoon near the Al Furqan Jame Masjid mosque, community members worried the slayings could be rooted in intolerance.

“There’s nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith,” said Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner of the New York Police Department.

The imam’s daughter, Naima Akonjee, said her father – described by worshippers as a pious man who gave compelling readings from the Quran – did not “have any problems with anyone.”

She said the imam and Uddin were close friends who always walked together to the mosque from their homes on the same street.

Police said the men were shot in the head as they left the mosque in the Ozone Park section of Queens shortly before 2pm.

Det Insp Sautner said video surveillance showed they were approached from behind by a man in a dark polo shirt and shorts who shot them and then fled with the gun still in his hand.

Members of the community served by the mosque said they want the shootings to be treated as a hate crime. More than 100 people attended a rally on Saturday night and 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. “We are peace-loving.”

The killings come amid a climate of growing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US.

Sarah Sayeed, a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff who serves as a liaison to Muslim communities, attended the rally. “I understand the fear because I feel it myself,” she said. “I understand the anger. But it’s very important to mount a thorough investigation.”

Members of the community had felt animosity lately, with people cursing while passing the mosque, said worshipper Shahin Chowdhury. He said he had advised people to be careful walking around, especially when in traditional clothing.

He called the imam a “wonderful person” with a voice that made his Quran readings especially compelling.

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 Mr Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin. “It’s a great misery. It’s a great loss to the community and it’s a great loss to the society.”

Naima Akonjee, 28, one of the imam’s seven children, said she rushed to her parents’ home after the shooting. She said her father was a caring man who would call her just to check up on whether she had eaten properly.

Neighbours also described 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.

*Associated Press and Agence France-Presse