CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — President Obama on Friday condemned the killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina as federal investigators said they had begun an inquiry into whether the killings were a hate crime.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said. “As we saw with the overwhelming presence at the funeral of these young Americans, we are all one American family.”
The president’s comments — coming as the FBI, federal prosecutors, and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department announced they would look into the killings as a possible hate crime — followed growing pressure from Muslim groups across the country and around the world who have complained about a lack of attention to the brutal killings.
The three students were shot and killed in what the police initially described as a parking dispute with a middle-aged white neighbor who later turned himself in.
The case has quickly become an international cause. The government of Jordan — former home of the family of two of the victims — advised that it was closely watching the case, while the prime minister of Turkey rebuked Obama earlier in the day for not speaking out.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, also extended condolences to the victims’ families.
Muslim groups also organized a prayer outside the White House on Friday afternoon, one of more than 100 vigils that have been held, or are scheduled, in several countries, for the students — Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. They were shot to death Tuesday outside a Chapel Hill apartment complex.
A project by Barakat to raise $20,000 to help refugees of the Syrian civil war had raised more than $300,000 by Friday morning.
Advocates for Muslims, civil rights groups, and the victims’ families said Friday that even if the FBI inquiry was about appearances, those appearances matter, sending a needed message that the federal government takes anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias seriously.
Fire damaged an Islamic Center in Houston on Friday, prompting speculation about a bias crime. And Muslim leaders voiced fears that a long-scheduled “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” will fan
Relatives of the Chapel Hill victims say the police have told them that all three victims had been shot in the head, and say they do not accept statements by the authorities that the fatal confrontation appeared to have begun, at least, as a neighborhood parking dispute.
“Everybody in both families — brothers, sisters, parents — believes wholeheartedly that this is a hate crime, so they feel validated that the FBI is looking into it,” said Linda Sarsour, who has acted as a spokeswoman for the families.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said: “It comes at a critical time, where American Muslims feel under siege. This announcement, I believe it’s comforting for many people.”
The FBI at first said that it would aid in the investigation by local and state authorities, but would not conduct its own investigation. When asked Wednesday about the shootings, a White House spokesman said, “We’re going to await the results of that investigation before we say anything.”
Then, late Thursday, the FBI issued a statement that federal authorities had “opened a parallel preliminary inquiry,” short of a full-fledged investigation, “to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case.”
Ripley Rand, the US attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said his office was committed to fully investigating the case, adding it was important the Muslim community know that the government is taking the case seriously.
“I intend to review every piece of evidence involved in it to make sure that we do our part to see that justice is done,” Rand said. “This is obviously a matter of global concern.”
A coalition of 150 rights and religious groups, most of them not directly involved in Muslim or Arab affairs, called Friday for a full-fledged federal inquiry.
It is unusual for the FBI to look into a case early on as the local and state authorities are doing so, but not unheard of. In December, after a hit-and-run driver killed a Somali-American teen in Kansas City, Mo., the FBI began an inquiry, as police charged a driver with murder.
Funeral services for the three victims drew thousands of mourners Thursday.
The man charged in this case, Craig Stephen Hicks, who lived in the same condo complex as the married couple, had a record of disputes with many people on the limited parking at the development, and Chapel Hill police have said that the shootings may have stemmed from another parking fight. But the victims’ families have insisted that the killings were motivated by a hatred of Muslims.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.