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FBI Probing Murder of 3 Muslim Students Amid Hate Crime Questions and Widespread Fear

The FBI has opened an “initial inquiry” – a procedural step before a full investigation – into this week’s fatal shootings of three young Muslims at a housing complex in Chapel Hill, N.C., near the University of North Carolina.

“The FBI has also opened a parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case,” the FBI said in a statement, the Washington Post reports in today’s editions.

Chapel Hill police currently are the lead agency in investigating the shooting deaths on Tuesday of newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, all students at the University of North Carolina.

Before a formal investigation is begun by the FBI, the agency frequently opens what it calls an “initial inquiry” to determine if there is sufficient evidence to justify full-blown federal intervention. With the FBI involved, federal charges can be filed against suspects in an investigation, supplanting or supporting state charges.

A neighbor of the victims, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, surrendered to police after the shootings. He has been charged with three counts of murder and remains in jail. Chapel Hill police have said “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking” may have been a factor in the shootings.

But Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the sisters who were killed, has publicly said the murders were a hate crime and called upon the FBI to investigate. “This has hate crime written all over it,” the father told reporters at the funeral of his daughters. Others, including fellow Muslims, have echoed that sentiment.

The Washington Post reported that the shooting “has stirred a deep sense of fear and vulnerability” for Muslims living in and near Chapel Hill. “As thousands gathered Thursday to mourn the victims, more and more people there were discussing whether bias played a role in the shootings and the larger issue of anti-Islamic sentiment,” the newspaper reported.

Hicks’ Facebook page was filled with statements against religion of all types, although Islam was not particularly singled out. Hicks also was a gun enthusiast, as evidenced by his many postings on gun websites and also an Amazon “wish list” that included such items as rifle scopes. In addition, the sisters’ father has said that one of his daughters told him before her murder that she had a scary neighbor who appeared to be upset by the traditional Muslim hijabs the two women wore.

There are other reasons for Muslims in America to feel under siege. Recent weeks and months have been thick with news of jihadist horrors — the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the murder of American Kayla Mueller by the Islamic State and the beheadings and burning alive of a Jordanian pilot by the same group, the Taliban’s mass murder of 145 people at a school in Pakistan, and more.

A poll out earlier this week, from LifeWay, a Christian nonprofit research group, found that 27% of Americans now see the barbaric Islamic State as representative of mainstream Islam. A variety of politicians and pundits have been aggressively attacking Muslims and their faith, often in the guise of working to pass laws to prevent the imposition of Shariah law on American courts -- an impossibility under the Constitution.

And that’s not all.

This morning, American Muslims awoke to the news that a large building at a new Islamic community center in Houston had been entirely gutted by an early morning fire. Though officials were not saying if the blaze was caused by arson, officials at the center said they had been told that it was started by a person, although perhaps accidentally.

Imam Zahid Abdullah also told ABC News that he saw a suspicious man near the center on Wednesday and last night. “My son was passing by here and somebody was sitting her in a white Ram, making mockery, chanting, “ he said.

Another Islamic center in Houston was attacked by arsonists in 2011. There have been similar attacks on Islamic centers in Jacksonville, Fla., and Corvallis, Ore.

President Obama issued a statement about the triple homicide in Chapel Hill today that sought to reassure Muslims, calling the murders “brutal and outrageous,” and confirming that the FBI’s would see if federal laws were violated.

“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,” the president said.

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