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Thousands mourn Chapel Hill shooting victims

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Media captionThousands have gathered to pay their last respects - Rajini Vaidyanathan reports

Thousands of mourners have gathered for the funeral of three Muslim students killed in North Carolina on Tuesday.

The father of two of the victims told the crowd they were victims of a hate crime and his pain was indescribable.

His daughters and son-in-law were shot dead at their home in Chapel Hill, and their neighbour charged with murder.

Police say initial indications suggest there was a parking space dispute but they are investigating whether Craig Hicks was motivated by religious hate.

Hicks gave himself up to police and has been charged with killing Deah Shaddy Barakat, wife Yusor Mohammad and her sister Razan.

The BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan said many mourners feel the murders were sparked by something far deeper than a parking row.

Chapel Hill police chief, Chris Blue, spoke at the service and promised his officers would investigate every lead, including the possibility of hate crime, our correspondent adds.

After a private ceremony with family members in Raleigh, the funeral was held at the athletic fields of North Carolina State University where all three had been a student. Police estimated 5,500 people were in attendance.

At the service's end, about a dozen people carried each to hearses, which headed to an Islamic cemetery outside Raleigh.

"It was the biggest funeral I've ever been to," said Nisrin Shabin. "They kept coming, it was magical."

At the scene - Rajini Vaidyanathan, BBC News

Image copyright AP

"Everybody is your neighbour, everybody is family here," was how one mourner described the Chapel Hill/Raleigh area, where the students lived.

Home to a number of university campuses, as well as tech and science companies in the so called "research triangle", people say it's a tolerant and open minded place. Which makes these murders all the more shocking.

Deah and Yusor and Razan have been described to me as smart, popular, fun students who worked hard and enjoyed sport. Above all, people remember them as kind, supportive and selfless. That they could provoke so much anger in a mere parking dispute - enough to cut their short lives short - is utterly inexplicable to people.

This is a hate crime, people told me time and time again - the victims' religion can't be divorced from the context of the crime, they said.

Sarah, who grew up with all three and says she's experienced Islamophobia, articulated a view many shared: "You have to have a lot of hate in your heart to kill three people in cold blood, and over a parking spot, it's ridiculous to say this was just that".

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Mr Hicks' Facebook profile included a photo that read "Atheists for Equality". He also frequently posted quotes critical of religion.

But Mr Hicks' wife Karen said the incident had nothing to do with religion and her husband treated everyone equally.

Image copyright Our Three Winners/Facebook
Image caption Warm tributes were paid to the three victims
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Craig Hicks has been charged with killing the Muslim family

A candlelit vigil was held at the University of North Carolina on Wednesday night.

Barakat was a dental student at the university and his wife was planning to enrol in the school in the next term.

Muslim and civil rights organisations are organising more vigils across the country for Thursday evening.

Mr Hicks apparently had a history of conflicts with neighbours over parking spaces.

Michael Nam told the BBC that Mr Hicks once confronted him with a gun holstered on his hip.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Families of the three victims wept during a vigil at Chapel Hill
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hundreds attended the vigil at Chapel Hill, and other vigils across the country

The murders have resonated both within US and around the world, especially on social media. The hashtag #ChapelHillShooting has been used hundreds of thousands of times.

There has been criticism of a perceived lack of coverage in the mainstream media with the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter mentioned almost 100,000 times in the day following the shooting.

Jane Weintraub, the dean of the University of North Carolina dental school, called Barakat "a bright light" who would be remembered for his "incredible heart for service" and "his leadership".

"I don't know what I'm going to do on Saturday mornings when it's time for family breakfast," Barakat's brother, Farris, told the candlelight vigil on Wednesday.

"We lost three great citizens of the world and of this country, but I think they've inspired thousands."

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