NEW DELHI: An imam and his assistant were shot dead as they walked along a street in the New York borough of Queens. Local Muslims have blamed the attack on the anti-Muslim rhetoric of US Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Police said that the men -- Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55 and his assistant Thara Uddin, 64 -- were approached from behind by a lone gunman who shot them in the head. "He would not hurt a fly," Imam Akonjee's nephew Rahi Majid, told the New York Daily News. "You would watch him come down the street and watch the peace he brings."

Friends of the Imam told the media that Akonjee and his assistant were shot just as they left al-Furqan Jame mosque after prayers. The mosque serves the large Bangladeshi community in Ozone Park.

Dozens of people gathered at the scene to mourn and demonstrate, chanting "We want justice". The consensus amongst the demonstrators was that the attack was a “hate crime”. Police say they are still investigating the incident, saying that as of now there are “no indications” that the two men were targeted because of their faith.

(Khairul Islam Kukon, 33, surrounded by other members of the Al-Furqan, Jame Masjid, Inc. mosque, leads a chant against Donald Trump after his imam was killed in Ozone Park, Queens. (DAVID WEXLER FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS))

Milat Uddin, who worships at the mosque, told Associated Press that authorities should treat the killing as a hate crime. "We feel really insecure and unsafe in a moment like this," he told CBS New York. "It's really threatening to us, threatening to our future, threatening to our mobility in our neighbourhood, and we're looking for the justice."

"These were two very beloved people. These were community leaders," Afaf Nasher, of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Reuters. "There is a deep sense of mourning and an overwhelming cry for justice to be served."

"I understand the fear because I feel it myself. I understand the anger," said Sarah Sayeed, a member of New York mayor Bill De Blasio's staff who works as a liaison with Muslim communities (as quoted by the BBC). "But it's very important to mount a thorough investigation."

Several protesters linked the crime to the anti-Islam rhetoric put forth by US Presidential candidate Donald Trump “That’s not what America is about,” said local resident Khairul Islam, 33, to the New York Daily News. “We blame Donald Trump for this . . . Trump and his drama has created Islamophobia.”

“We are devastated,” said Kobir Chowdhury, president of a different neighborhood mosque, to the NY Daily News. “We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to know if they did this just because of our religion.”

The attacker is still at large.

(NYPD sketch of the suspect wanted in the killings of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin. He's described as an adult male with a medium complexion. Credit: NY Daily Mail)