Police said Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and 64-year-old Thara Uddin were shot in the head as they left the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in the Ozone Park section of Queens shortly before 2 p.m. Both men were later pronounced dead.
Police said no motive had been established and there was no reason to believe the men were shot because they were Muslim. No suspects were in custody late Saturday.
"There's nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith," said Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner of the New York Police Department.
Sautner said video surveillance showed the victims were approached from behind by a man in a dark polo shirt and shorts who shot them and then fled with the gun still in his hand.
The imam's daughter, Naima Akonjee, said her father and Uddin were close friends who always walked together to the mosque from their homes on the same street.
Members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community served by the mosque said they want the shootings to be treated as a hate crime. More than 100 people attended a rally Saturday night and chanted "We want justice!"
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, held a news conference near the shooting scene, where Kobir Chowdhury, a leader at another local mosque, said, "Read my lips: This is a hate crime" directed at Islam. "We are peace-loving."
Naima Akonjee said her father didn't "have any problems with anyone."
Sarah Sayeed, a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio's staff, serves as a liaison to Muslim communities. She attended the rally and said, "I understand the fear because I feel it myself. I understand the anger. But it's very important to mount a thorough investigation."
Members of the community had felt animosity lately, with people cursing while passing the mosque, said worshipper Shahin Chowdhury. He said he had advised people to be careful walking around, especially when in traditional clothing.
He called the imam a "wonderful person" with a voice that made his Koran readings especially compelling.
Worshipper Millat Uddin said Akonjee had led the mosque for about two years and was a very pious man.
"The community's heart is totally broken," said Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin. "It's a great misery. It's a great loss to the community and it's a great loss to the society."
Naima Akonjee, 28, one of the imam's seven children, said she rushed to her parents' home after the shooting.
She said her father used to call her just to check up on whether she had eaten properly. She'd tell him, "Why are you caring about me?"
"And he said, 'If I'm not caring about you, who will?'" she recalled.
Neighbors also described Uddin as a pious and thoughtful man who prayed five times a day and went to the mosque. While at home, they said he would water his garden and one next door.
"A very honest, wise man ... (And) a very helpful guy," said neighbor Mohammed Uddin, who is not a relation of Thara Uddin's.