WASHINGTON: Police have arrested a gunman in the killing of three Muslim students -- including a husband and wife -- in the university town of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, US news reports said Wednesday.
The shooter, identified as Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was being held in Durham County Jail on three counts of first-degree murder, the Chapel Hill News and Observer newspaper and other news outlets said.
A Facebook page believed to belong to Hicks showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an “anti-theist” saying he has a “conscientious objection to religion” and others memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
One post read: “I'm not an atheist because I'm ignorant of the reality of religious scripture. I'm an atheist because religious scripture is ignorant of reality."
“Given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I'd say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it,” he posted under the religious beliefs tab.
According to The Independent, the gunman's last three social media posts, "were a cute dog video about the Pavlov effect, a viral advert for Air New Zealand involving mountain bikes, and a picture from United Atheists of America asking 'why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others’ influence when they agree about so many ideological issues'."
The victims were identified as Chapel Hill residents Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.
Hicks turned himself in after the shooting Tuesday in Chapel Hill, just outside the campus of the University of North Carolina.
Reports said Barakat was a second-year student in dentistry there while his wife was planning to begin her dental studies in the fall.
Razan Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University, according to the UNC university newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.
A Facebook community --- Our Three Winners -- has been set up for posts about the three students.
“Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord,” the community's creators state. “They have set an example in life and in death."
The site features a photo of the three smiling at what appears to be graduation ceremony. The women wear Muslim headscarfs, one of them also in a blue graduation cap.
Police in Chapel Hill have not disclosed a possible motive for the attack.
They were not immediately available for comment.
The police website released a statement confirming the three deaths and saying the department is “questioning a person of interest in the crime and has reason to believe that there is no ongoing threat to the public."
"Barakat and Abu-Salha were married Dec. 27. Abu-Salha’s Facebook photo – posted two days ago – shows her smiling as her father twirls her around the wedding dance floor. She was scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in biological sciences from NCSU, according to a university release, and she graduated in 2011 from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. Her sister Razan Abu-Salha graduated from Athens Drive in 2013 and was studying architecture and environmental design at NCSU."
"Barakat, a Syrian-American, majored in business administration and management at NCSU before enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 to pursue his doctorate in dental surgery. Both he and Abu-Salha advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East. On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year. Barakat was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee students for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics."