The three friends drove here Thursday from Blacksburg, Va., 190 miles to the north. Dressed in hijab and fashionable dresses, carrying a fabric floral arrangement in a gold-colored pot, they came for the funeral of the three Arab-American students who were gunned down at their home a couple of days earlier.
Once here, the friends found themselves among more than 5,000 people streaming onto a soccer field. Like them, many had traveled from hours away, across the state and region — bearded men in suits and sweatshirts, college students, young white couples dressed in suits and church dresses, Jewish men in skullcaps, and men and women in traditional Muslim dress.
Some spoke Arabic or chatted in Spanish and French. Television journalists from national and international outlets crowded around. Old friends from the region’s many major universities embraced with handshakes and hugs.
At the front of the soccer field, before a covered speaker’s platform, were the coffins of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. The three had been fatally shot Tuesday afternoon outside an apartment in nearby Chapel Hill. A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged in the killings. They were buried in a Muslim cemetery about a half-hour east of Raleigh, the state capital.
The funerary Janazah prayer was held after noon prayers by the nearby Raleigh mosque. The soccer field was pressed into service to accommodate the overflowing crowd.
Many of those attending said they felt a deep calling to be there. One of the friends from Blacksburg, Yasmin Kubba, a 24-year-old senior studying international business at Virginia Tech, said, “I thought of Martin Luther King saying, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.’ ”
The crowd was set up in traditional Muslim fashion: men in the front block in well-kept rows, with a blue tarp to kneel on. Women, most with their heads covered, sat in a separate section to the rear. Scores of others who did not participate in the prayers stood around a periphery of the mourners’ removed shoes.
The killings have set off an international debate about whether the students, who were Muslims, had been targeted because of their religion. The Chapel Hill police said that the shooting appeared to have been motivated by “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” but that they were investigating whether religious hatred had contributed to the killings.
In an impassioned speech to the assembly, the father of the two slain women implored President Obama and law enforcement to investigate the killings as a hate crime. “Please involve the F.B.I. Please investigate. Please look carefully,” said Dr. Mohammad Yousif Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist in nearby Clayton. “I have talked to lawyers. I have talked to law professors. This has hate crime written all over it!”
“It is all about making this country that they loved, where they lived and died, peaceful for everybody else,” Dr. Abu-Salha said.
Without uttering his name, Dr. Abu-Salha referred in his eulogy to the Facebook page of Mr. Hicks, the neighbor charged with the murders, where he frequently made clear his disdain for all religions. Dr. Abu-Salha asked people to ignore what he saw as defamatory depictions of Islam in the news media, and specifically in the current movie “American Sniper.”
On Thursday, the F.B.I. spokeswoman in North Carolina, Shelley Lynch, said the agency was assisting the police in Chapel Hill with processing evidence. After initially saying there was not a separate investigation, the F.B.I. has also opened a “parallel preliminary inquiry to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated related to the case,” Ms. Lynch said.
Asim Haroon, a 43-year-old software engineer from Raleigh, came to the funeral with his wife, Samia, and their 5-month-old daughter, Noor, to stand up for what he called “the values this nation is known for — equality, justice and peace for all.”
Mr. Haroon, who moved to Raleigh more than 20 years ago from Pakistan, said many in the community were scared that anti-Muslim bigots might be inspired to carry out copycat attacks. He differed with Dr. Abu-Salha’s exhortation, saying he believed the authorities could be forgiven for emphasizing the role that a dispute over parking might have had in the murders, and playing down ethnic or religious hatred as a factor, in an effort to cool emotions.
The three visitors from Blacksburg said identifying such heinous murders as a hate crime was essential to ensure the safety of people of all races and religions, or lack thereof.
“A lot of people are saying they haven’t felt this scared since 9/11,” said one of the friends, Zuhra Malik, a 22-year-old civil engineering senior at Virginia Tech.
Nida Iftekaruddin, a 24-year-old teacher, agreed. After the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, Muslims were told that they could be safe in America if they had exemplary character. Yet the victims remembered on Thursday were high-achieving students committed to community service, and Americans as well.
“That’s what’s really worrying,” Ms. Iftekaruddin said. “To see that it happened to them means it could happen to anyone.”