Chapel Hill Victim Raised Funds for Syrian Refugees Days Before He Was Shot

February 11, 2015 Updated: February 11, 2015

Police say it was a long-running parking dispute.

The father of one victim thinks it was an anti-Muslim hate crime.

A triple murder Tuesday in Chapel Hill, N.C., inspired the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag, and people used it to ask why the media does not characterize the shooter as a lone wolf Christian terrorist targeting people for their religion. If the perpetrator had been Muslim, that would have been the narrative, according to the online discussion.

But the alleged killer was not a Christian, but rather an atheist and a liberal, and an admirer of atheist Richard Dawkins, according to his Facebook postings.

Hard to fit that into a religious extremism narrative. Time will tell if it was a hate crime. 

Dawkins, noted scientist and  author of  “the God Delusion,” tweeted his view: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?” 

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in Tuesday’s shooting of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, of Chapel Hill; Yusor Mohammad, 21, of Chapel Hill; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh. 

Barakat and Mohammad were married, and Abu-Salha was Mohammad’s sister. They died at a quiet condominium complex near the University of North Carolina campus, police said Wednesday. All were shot in the head.

Barakat was a UNC dental student who was raising money to treat refugees from Syria. He was planning to travel to Turkey this summer with 10 dentists and faculty members to treat urgent dental problems, and to teach preventive hygiene. They were going to do extractions, root canals, and cleanings. In a fundraising video, wearing a North Carolina T-shirt, he clasped his hands and said “these kids don’t have access to the same health care as us, and their prolonged pain can be easily be taken care of with the work that we do, but we need the proper funding.”

Barakat was planning to travel to Turkey this summer with 10 dentists and faculty members to treat urgent dental problems, and to teach preventive hygiene.

UNC School of Dentistry & Syrian American Medical Society set a goal of $20,000 to cover the trip. The day after Barakat’s death, people had more than quadrupled the goal, donating $103,954.

This is a generous and kind response to a horror.

It appears that Barakat, Mohammad, and Abu-Salha were beginning their lives as caring, responsible people.

The two women, his wife and sister, wore head scarves. Muneeb Mustafa, 23, of Cary, knew Barakat. “He was a completely genuine guy. Loving, caring, friendly, smart,” Mustafa said. “He was an ideal human being. He was a role model.”

Hicks does not appear to be an ideal human being. I do not want to hurt my atheist friends’ feelings, but denying the idea of the divine does not inspire the best in people. Personally, I think religion, like great art, gives a glimpse of transcendence. If religions descend into terrorism or witch burnings or kidnappings or Inquisitions or human sacrifice, that is the worst side of the human heart coming out. The original purpose of religions was to show us how to live with full human dignity.

My mother-in-law died last week. She was a cosmopolitan and worldly; a diva: actress, singer, traveler, widow, pilot. She was not a church person. She married a Jewish man and became even less interested in church than she had been.

As she planned for her old age, she moved from the Windy City, Chicago, to an retirement community in Arizona. It was glitzy. It was secular. It was for profit. People were not that kind there. I saw it with my own eyes.

She later moved to a church-affiliated non-profit retirement place. It was a little shabby around the edges. The food was good. The people were gentle. They extended themselves to help others. She was still not a church person. I am still not a church person. But I saw that those people were aimed at something bigger than themselves.

So was Barakat. He wanted to relieve suffering. Compassion seems to have been at the center of his life.

Do our crusading atheist brothers and sisters place compassion at the center of their lives? Hicks, who posted a picture of a handgun he owned, as if it were a beloved art object, did not seem to.

The Associated Press contributed to this report