WASHINGTON -- Following criticism for his silence, U.S. President Barack Obama has made his first public statement on the killing of three Muslim students that has sparked a national debate about hate crimes and anti-Islamic sentiment in America.
"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 in a February 13 statement on the shooting deaths of the three students this week in the college down of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Obama called described as "brutal and outrageous" the February 10 slayings of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.
He offered condolences to the victims' families, who have demanded an investigation into whether the crime was motivated by religious hatred.
An alleged lone gunman has been arrested and charged with the killings, which are being investigated by local authorities. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is also examining whether the killings constitute a hate crime, which could lead to harsher penalties if the suspect is convicted.
Local police have said that the suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, who had previously described himself as a "gun-toting" atheist, was a neighbor of the three students and may have committed the crime over a long-running dispute about parking spaces.
Hicks' wife has been quoted by U.S. media outlets as saying that her husband "champions the rights of others" and that the crime "had nothing to do with religion or the victim's faith."
The murder suspect's neighbors, however, say Hicks, 46, displayed menacing behavior around them, sometimes while openly carrying a handgun, The New York Times reported.
Relatives of the victims, meanwhile, say the sisters slain in the attack had expressed concerns about Hicks and that they believed he disliked that they wore hijabs.
Obama noted in his statement that the FBI "is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated," an apparent reference to U.S. federal hate crime laws.
His comments came a day after the funeral for the victims in Raleigh, North Carolina, that drew thousands of mourners.
Speaking at the funeral, the father of the two sisters killed in the shooting, Mohammed Abu-Salha, said the attack "has hate crime written all over it."
The slayings have sparked outrage both in the United States and across the world, with many accusing the American media of devoting insufficient coverage to the crime and framing the case differently because of the victims' faith.
"Any time an incident happens and it's done by a Muslim, it has to be because of Islam," Imam Adeel Zeb, a Muslim chaplain at Duke University, told The Washington Post. "But if it's somebody else, it must be because of mental illness, or something else, like an argument over parking spaces. There is a double standard, and it makes you feel like a second-class citizen."
The case has received significant attention from leading U.S. newspapers, television, and radio outlets, some of which noted that an initial lag in coverage could in part be due to the fact that authorities first confirmed victims' identity after midnight, several hours after Hicks allegedly shot them at their apartment block.
The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter gathered steam across social media throughout the world overnight as news of the killings emerged and criticism of U.S. media coverage ramped up.
"If a Muslim executed 3 Christian students in US, it would get a LOT more media coverage than I'm seeing right now," one Twitter user wrote early in the morning on February 11.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a February 13 statement that the murder case "is quickly becoming a touchstone for the American Muslim community's sense of security and inclusion."
He added that he was encouraged by the FBI's probe of the slayings as a possible hate crime.
"We welcome the FBI's increased involvement in this tragic case and hope the added resources and expertise the bureau has to offer will help see that justice is served," Awad said.
Obama faced criticism as well for remaining silent about the murders for several days, including from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
"If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don't make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you," Erdogan, the leader of a Muslim nation, said on February 12 during his visit to Mexico.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest had said a day earlier that the administration would "await the results of [the local] investigation before we say anything."
Following Obama's first comments on the case on February 13, Farhana Khera, executive director of the U.S. legal advocacy group Muslim Advocates, called on Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to speak more forcefully against "anti-Muslim bigotry."
"While Obama announced Friday that the FBI has begun an inquiry into Tuesday's horrific killings in North Carolina, now, more than ever, we need the president and attorney general Holder to speak from the podium and personally address the larger issue of anti-Muslim bigotry," she wrote in a commentary piece for CNN.
'We're All One'
The victims, meanwhile, are being mourned nationwide, with dozens of vigils having already been held and numerous others planned across the United States.
A charity that Barakat, a dental student of Syrian decent, had set up to provide dental services to refugees of the Syrian civil war has now raised more than $330,000 in donations after originally aiming to attract $20,000 in contributions.
He had previously traveled to Turkey with his wife Yusor, who planned to enroll in dental school, to provide dental care for refugees. Her sister, Razan, was active in trying to promote a positive image of Muslim-Americans, the Reuters news agency reported.
Obama concluded his February 13 statement on the killings by citing a recent quote from Yusor:
"Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn't matter where you come from. There's so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions -- but here, we're all one."