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New Jersey Police Seek Killer of Newark Mosque Leader

A Newark Police vehicle is parked outside the Masjid-Muhammad-Newark Mosque in Newark, New Jersey, Jan. 3, 2024. An imam was shot outside the mosque.
A Newark Police vehicle is parked outside the Masjid-Muhammad-Newark Mosque in Newark, New Jersey, Jan. 3, 2024. An imam was shot outside the mosque.

Police in New Jersey hunted Thursday for the killer of a Muslim leader who was shot outside his mosque before morning prayers, offering cash to anyone who can help them make an arrest. Authorities said they had no evidence that religious hate motivated the imam's slaying, but vowed to protect people of faith amid soaring reports of bias attacks across the U.S.

The killing of Imam Hassan Sharif as he prepared to open the Masjid Muhammad-Newark mosque on Wednesday has generated an intense law enforcement dragnet. The state's attorney general pledged to assist county and local officials, and the Essex County sheriff announced a $25,000 reward.

Sharif's shooting comes amid intensifying bias incidents against Muslims and Jews since Hamas committed terror attacks on Israel on October 7, provoking a punishing war in the Gaza Strip.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, recorded more than 2,000 bias incidents against U.S. Muslims in the first two months since the Mideast attacks began, up from nearly 800 in the same period last year.

"While the perpetrator's motive remains unknown and irrespective of this specific incident, we advise all mosques to keep their doors open but remain cautious especially given the recent spike in anti-Muslim bigotry," said Dina Sayedahmed, a spokeswoman for CAIR's New Jersey chapter.

Attorney General Matt Platkin said Wednesday there's no evidence yet that Sharif's killing was a hate crime, but he and other officials didn't detail how they determined that, or offer more details beyond saying Sharif was shot more than once in his car at about 6 a.m., and was quickly taken to the adjacent University Hospital, where he died in the afternoon.

Even without evidence of a connection to anti-Muslim bias, authorities explicitly acknowledged the broader global context.

"I want every resident of our state to know that we are bringing all of our resources to bear to keep our Muslim friends and neighbors safe as well as all New Jerseyans safe," Platkin said.

Sharif had been the resident imam at his mosque for five years and was active in the interfaith community, city officials said. Among other things, he helped oversee the mosque's involvement as a safe house where people could go to avoid violent interactions with police, which "greatly assisted" the apprehension of felons and serving of warrants, Newark Public Safety Director Fritz Fragé said.

In a video statement posted on its website, the mosque offered prayers and said the community would focus on delivering Sharif his last rights and burial. The statement described Sharif as a brother, friend, father and husband and called on the community to be mindful of the family's grief.

Sharif's death follows other recent killings of religious leaders or at houses of worship that officials said weren't tied to bias.

In Detroit, authorities said there wasn't a "shred of evidence" that a synagogue leader was killed in her home in October. In Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, authorities said the death of a man outside a mosque was the result of a carjacking.