Imam shot dead in New Jersey, shaking US Muslim community
A Muslim imam was fatally shot outside his mosque in New Jersey early Wednesday morning, as police continue to search for the assailant.
Imam Hassan Sharif was at the Masjid Muhammad, a mosque in Newark, for fajr (dawn) prayers when he was reportedly shot multiple times while in his vehicle, shortly after 6:15am.
Sharif was rushed to a local hospital in critical condition, where he succumbed to his wounds around 2:20pm, according to local news reports.
In the hours following the shooting, police were seen near the mosque entrance and overhead in a helicopter monitoring the situation.
So far, the motive for the killing is unclear. However, the incident comes at a time of a sharp increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks throughout the US amid Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, which began on 7 October.
"If there's any evidence that this was anything, broadly speaking, a hate crime, Islamophobia, anything in that lane, it is completely reprehensible, unacceptable in the state of New Jersey, and we will take whatever actions we need to take," New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a public statement.
"But again, that's assuming it's the case. I do not have confirmation that it is the case. But I will say this - we pray for the imam and his family, certainly, fervently."
According to news reports, acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens said: "The [Essex County Prosecutors Office] is working with the Newark Police Department and other agencies to identify the person or persons responsible for this violent act.
"At a time when bias crimes against members of the Muslim community are on the rise, we know this act of gun violence may heighten concerns."
Law enforcement confirmed during an afternoon press conference they were increasing patrols around mosques in the area, saying it was a priority to provide safety to all religious institutions.
Essex County Crime Stoppers will offer a $25,000 reward for anyone who comes forward with any information about the crime, no questions asked.
During their press conference, officials paid tribute to Sharif, remembering him as an interfaith leader and a gun safety advocate who participated in Newark's "safe surrender programme" that offered his mosque as a safe house, allowing fugitives to turn themselves in to help prevent violent interactions with police officers.
"He supported the city in all its efforts to help keep our city safe. It is with a deep loss that the city will mourn his absence," said Fritz Frage, Newark's public safety director.
Officials said that at this point in their investigation there is no reason to assume the shooting has a bias motive. However, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said that since 7 October, there has been extra protection for religious institutions, particularly Jewish and Muslim buildings, throughout the state.
Established in 1957, Masjid Muhammad is one of New Jersey's older mosques.
Muslims account for three percent of New Jersey's population - the highest percentage of any US state.