Thousands gather to mourn slain Muslim students in North Carolina

Father of one of the victims says the killing ‘has hate crime written all over it’

More than 5,000 people gathered for solemn funeral and prayer services Thursday for three Muslim students gunned down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, allegedly by an angry neighbor.

The deaths — of newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — quickly gained international attention, with some concluding the shooter was motivated by hatred for Muslims. Mohammad Abu-Salha, the he father of the two women, said at the funeral that he thought the murder had "hate crime written all over it."

"We don't want revenge," he said. "We don't care about punishment. We want this acknowledged for what it is."

The three victims were found dead Tuesday at the couple's home near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barakat attended graduate school there; Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha had planned to join him.

Gerod King of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that agents were in touch with the U.S. attorney's office in North Carolina, which encompasses Chapel Hill, and that investigators have not ruled out a hate crime.

"We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case," Chris Blue, Chapel Hill's police chief, said in an email to reporters.

The crowd for the funeral was so large it had to be moved from a mosque to a nearby university athletic field. The service began after midday prayers. The crowd was somber and silent, with only a few children crying in the distance. A large blue plastic prayer mat lay on the field, and some took their own to use.

Three coffins sat before a covered stage — in gray, white and silver. At the service's end, about a dozen people carried the coffins to hearses, which headed to an Islamic cemetery outside Raleigh.

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a "gun-toting" atheist, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Neighbors said Wednesday that he frequently seemed angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting-rampage movie "Falling Down."

His current wife, Karen Hicks, said that her husband "champions the rights of others" and that the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith."

Wire services, with additional reporting by Tom Maxwell from Chapel Hill.

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