Chapel Hill shooting victims remembered for their 'amazing spirit'
Chapel Hill shooting victims (Facebook)

Thousands gathered on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Wednesday night to pay tribute to three local students who were shot to death the night before.

Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her younger sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were killed on Tuesday evening in the couple’s apartment in a leafy suburb of Chapel Hill.

Related: Family of North Carolina shooting victims denounce killings as 'hate crime'

The assembled crowd, which included students from both UNC and North Carolina State University, as well as members of the surrounding community, numbered as many as 3,000 people, university officials confirmed.

Brian Swift, a friend of Barakat’s and the president of his class at the dentistry school, told the Guardian that the turnout was “unbelievable.”“If Deah were to see me now, he would give me a smack and tell me to put a smile on my face,” he added.

Many held candles, while students from the school of dentistry – where Barakat was studying, and where his wife was set to enroll in the autumn – wore their white coats in an act of solidarity.

Craig Stephen Hicks, who turned himself in to the police, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the shooting deaths.

The motive for the shooting is not yet known, but many, including Barakat’s family, have suggested that the murders may have been a hate crime.

After news of the attack broke, the hashtag “#MuslimLivesMatter” began trending on Twitter, and in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Barakat’s sister Suzanne described the attack as an “execution-style murder.”

Barakat’s comments echoed those of Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the two women killed, who said he believes the killings were a hate crime, perpetrated against his daughters and son-in-law because they were Muslim.

Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Guardian earlier on Wednesday that his organization was joining the Barakats in calling for authorities to treat the attack as a hate crime.

At the vigil, people stood in near-perfect silence in the clear, cold air, as friends and family lined up to pay tribute to the “amazing spirit” of the three victims, and to try and make sense of the horrific crime.Yasmine Inaya, Razan’s best friend and classmate at North Carolina State University, referenced the hashtag that trended on Twitter after the attack. “Muslim lives matter. Black lives matter. All lives matter. Human lives matter,” she said.

Dr Omid Safi, the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, also addressed the crowd, ending his remarks with “love is more divine than hatred.” At that moment, the bell at the top of the university clock tower sonorously tolled the hour.

Barakat’s brother Farris made an appeal for calm. “Trust me, as a Muslim, I know: one act does not define a mass,” he said, adding “Do not fight fire with fire”.After he spoke, a murmur of “Allahu Akhbar”– an Qur’anic phrase spoken by Muslims meaning ‘God is great’ – arose in solidarity and support from Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the crowd.

After the vigil, people left candles burning around the base of the two giant oak trees that dominate the quadrangle. A sign leaning against the trunk of one tree bore the names of the three victims, alongside the simple slogan “love prevails.”

Mohammed Dorgham, a childhood friend of Bakarat’s, told the Guardian that the turnout “showed the life Deah – and Yusor, and Razan – led.”“Words can’t explain it,” he said. “But this turnout may have done.” © Guardian News and Media 2015