Toronto police are warning that two recent fatal stabbing attacks could be by the same perpetrator and motivated by racial hated.
Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, 58, was at the front doors of a mosque in Toronto’s west end ensuring COVID-19 health measures were followed at evening prayer on Saturday when someone stabbed him once and ran away. He died on the spot.
Five days earlier and less than five kilometres away, Rampreet (Peter) Singh, a 39-year-old Sikh man who was homeless and living under a bridge, died from multiple stab wounds.Insp. Hank Idsinga, head of the Toronto police homicide unit, said similarities in the attacks justified a public warning of the possibility of a racially motivated killer, perhaps even a serial killer.
“Both victims were stabbed and the incidents occurred within very close proximity of each other. In a nutshell, they are similar ethnicities,” Idsinga told reporters Monday.
“I don’t want to raise any fear or panic I just want people to be aware this is something that we’re looking at, the possibility that these are connected. We are asking the public to please continue to be aware of your surroundings and report any suspicious people or behaviour to police or to CrimeStoppers.
“I want to assure the community that the Toronto Police Service is working diligently on these cases.”
The family and friends of Zafis are preparing for an outdoor funeral service scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the International Muslim Organization (IMO) mosque on Rexdale Blvd., where he was killed.
“Our community is grieving and in shock that such an act of violence took place,” said Mustafa Farooq, chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which is representing the IMO.
“Police have told us, and, I think have told the public as well, that they haven’t ruled out anything but at this point there is no clear indication of what actually took place,” he said. “We are calling to make sure that folks stay vigilant but at this point we are not encouraging people to panic and not encouraging mosques to shut down.”
The IMO mosque board of directors urged calm as well as vigilance.
“The fact that theories have not been ruled out should not lead us to spreading news that a hate crime was committed or that a serial killer is on the loose, as has been shared by some sources,” said the mosque’s statement, released Tuesday afternoon.
“Rather, it is more appropriate to allow the police to continue to investigate — at the same time, we urge our congregants to keep our brother in your prayers and to of course continue to be vigilant about any suspicious activity in the area.”
Our community is grieving and in shock that such an act of violence took place
Balpreet Singh, spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, confirmed Rampreet Singh was a Sikh man and said the community is concerned about these and other recent attacks.
“It is giving rise to concern and because there is so much uncertainly over why this is happening and who is doing it, it could lead to fear in the community. We are watching it very closely,” he said.
Earlier this month, Toronto police warned of two hate-motivated assaults on South Asian men, also in Toronto’s west end but south of the stabbings. In one case, a Sikh man was attacked and his turban pulled off; in another, a man was attacked and hit on the head. The suspect description in those attacks is not dissimilar from a video image of the suspect in the mosque stabbing — a slim male about five-foot-six wearing a ball cap.
The timing of the attack at the mosque could be important, coming the day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States by Islamic extremist group al Qaeda. After the terror attacks, there was increasing hostility towards Muslims and other visible minorities.
“It is somewhat unnerving,” Balpreet Singh said, “because Sikhs are probably one of the most visible South Asian communities out there, because of our turbans and the articles of faith. We stand out. The first man to be murdered after the 9/11 attacks in a hate-related attack was a Sikh man.
“It was a case of mistaken identification but in the Sikh community you won’t find the messaging ‘we’re not Muslim,’ because it doesn’t matter if someone is Muslim or not — we’re all in this together.”