New York City police are searching for a gunman who killed a Muslim cleric and his associate as they left prayers at a mosque in the borough of Queens, sowing fear and sadness in their budding Bangladeshi community.
A motive has not yet been established for Saturday's daylight shooting and there is no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith, police say, while residents are demanding it be treated as a hate crime.
The gunman approached the men from behind and shot both in the head at close range in the Ozone Park neighbourhood of Queens, one of the city's five boroughs, police say.
The victims, identified as Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, were wearing religious garb at the time and were pronounced dead after being taken to hospital, police said.
"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 who is 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 neighbourhood.
"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 US$1000 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.
The shooting appeared to be the most violent attack against local Muslim leaders in recent years, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and advocacy group.