New York police hunt for gunman in Muslim cleric’s killing

A crowd of community members gather at the place where Imam Maulama Akonjee was killed in the Queens borough of New York CityNew York City police searched on Sunday for a gunman who killed a Muslim cleric and his associate as they left prayers at a mosque in the borough of Queens on Saturday, a crime that sowed fear and sadness in their budding Bangladeshi community.

Police had yet to establish a motive and said there was no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith, but nothing was being ruled out. Residents demanded authorities treat the brazen daylight shooting as a hate crime.

The gunman approached the men from behind and shot both in the head at close range about 1:50 p.m. (1750 GMT) in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, one of the city’s five boroughs, police said in a statement.

The victims, identified as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, were wearing religious garb, police said. Police found them bleeding in the street and took them to a hospital where they were pronounced dead.

“While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Rest assured that our NYPD will bring this killer to justice.”

The men were attacked about two blocks from the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque where they had just left afternoon prayers. Ozone Park, a diverse, largely working-class area, is home to a growing number of Muslims of Bangladeshi heritage.

Millat Uddin, 57, an Ozone Park resident not related to the imam’s associate, said both men were born in Bangladesh. He said he was close to Akonjee, describing him as a “docile, calm” father of seven who was beloved in the neighborhood.

“What matters most is harmless people have been shot dead, regardless of whether this was a hate crime,” he said. “Our community’s heart is broken.”

Akonjee was carrying $1,000 with him at the time of the attack but the money was not taken, the New York Times reported.

“I have never felt this kind of tension,” said Nizam Uddin, 57, a taxi driver who said he knew both the cleric and his associate. He also was not related to the associate. (Courtesy Reuters)