Fresno Muslims, faith leaders call shooter’s ‘Allahu Akbar’ cry a crime against Islam

Muslim and other faith leaders gathered outside Fresno City Hall Tuesday to denounce a violent shooting spree that killed three people in Fresno and to offer prayers for the families of victims. Later Tuesday, a church group gathered near the shooting scene for a vigil.

Fresno police reported that the suspect in the shooting, Kori Ali Muhammad, 39, yelled “Ali Akbar” before being arrested. However, a review of Muhammad’s social media shows he’s previously quoted the phrase “Allahu Akbar.” This is a common phrase in Muslim prayers and means “God is the greatest,” said Imam Seyed Ali Ghazvini of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno.

Ghazvini said his center does not know the suspect, and he was not known at any local mosques. Ghazvini said the words “Allahu Akbar” are commonly used in Muslim prayers to ask God to bring healing and peace, and that using them in association with violence is a crime against Islam.

“This individual does not represent our faith or our community,” Ghazvini said. “This individual does not represent your Muslim neighbor, your Muslim classmate or your co-worker. The Muslim community in the Valley are working hard for the well-being of our society and country.”

The deadly shooting rampage Tuesday morning left three men dead: Pacific Gas & Electric worker Zachary Randalls, 34, riding in a company truck, who died at Community Regional Medical Center; Mark Gassett, 37, shot and killed while walking on Fulton Street; and David Jackson, 58, shot and killed in the parking lot of Catholic Charities. Muhammad is also suspected of killing Carl Williams, 25, a security guard who had confronted Muhammad last week at a Fresno Motel 6.

Around 25 faith leaders – including representatives from several Fresno Muslim centers, interfaith groups, Christian churches and a Jewish temple – gathered to address the shooting during Tuesday’s news conference outside City Hall.

Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, said that the shooter reportedly saying Allahu Akbar “brings pain to our community and truly crushes our hearts and souls.”

‘Condemn the acts’

“We condemn the acts of the criminal in the strongest terms,” Nekumanesh said, “and stand with our community and city in support and brotherhood … and we call upon our law enforcement agencies and our officials to properly investigate the motives of this man and hold him accountable accordingly.”

Andy Levine, executive director of the Faith in Fresno, part of Faith in the Valley, said he is standing with, and in support of, the many innocent members of the Muslim community and African American community who are already wrongfully receiving negative backlash because of the deadly shooting.

“Sadly,” Levine said, “there are individuals and forces out there that will and already are using this to divide us and trick us into believing that we are different from one another and that we should be mistrustful of one another and that we should stay separated from one another.”

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer of Temple Beth Israel called Islam a religion of “peace and justice” and called on the community to educate themselves about Islam – a religion that faith leaders estimate is followed by around 1.8 billion people around the world.

“There’s a lot of assumptions made about what Islam is about and what it means to be a Muslim, and those assumptions very often are not true,” Winer said. “We who live in Fresno, in this very diverse and colorful city, have an obligation to understand who each other is, and what each other stands for. Ultimately, we all stand for peace and justice in this world.”

Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said it is providing support for those who witnessed the shooting.

“The diocese will be present to the needs of all those serving as witnesses to this violent and traumatic event,” Dominguez said, “such as counseling and pastoral care, and Bishop Ochoa asks for the prayer of all the faithful for the victims of this violent crime and their families, and that law enforcement will be successful in their investigation in identifying the perpetrator.”

About 60 attend vigil

In the alley behind Catholic Charities, where part of the shooting took place, dozens of people from nearby On Ramps Covenant Church gathered Tuesday evening for a vigil to remember the shooting victims and pray for the city.

About 60 people from On Ramps Covenant Church canceled their regular 6:30 p.m. Bible study inside World Impact Inc. on Broadway and El Dorado streets to instead walk a few blocks to the nearby Catholic Charities. Pastor Phil Skei reminded the group that three people were shot and killed Tuesday. He said the suspect’s act was not an act of God, despite the man shouting “God is great” in Arabic when he was arrested.

Skei led the crowd down the alley between Yosemite Avenue and Fulton Street. Followers raised their hands in the air as they sang, “There’s forgiveness in the blood of Jesus.” A circle of bodies formed feet away from yellow tape that blocked off one of the crime scenes.

David Mendoza, an On Ramps Covenant member, said he does not endorse what Muhammad is alleged to have done, but he understands what can sometimes drive someone to act violently. “I was part of that violence,” he said, adding that he paid a price for his actions. Mendoza rhetorically asked the crowd what makes someone pull out a gun and shoot people. “Brokenness,” he answered.

Skei said a wave of sadness washed over him when he heard about the shooting. He, along with other members, decided to pray for the healing for their city at the scene of the crime. The pastor said this tragic event is a call to action and that Fresno should unite to spread peace.

“We’re all grieving as a community,” he said.

Reporter Andrea Figueroa Briseño contributed to this report.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Related stories from Fresno Bee