Oscar Morel
Oscar Morel appears for an arraignment at the Queens Criminal Court for his alleged involvement in the murder of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin in Queens, New York Dennis A. Clark/ Reuters

A man charged with the murder of a New York imam and his assistant has denied the killing, asserting "I like all types of religions".

Oscar Morel, 35, was arrested following the street shooting of Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his assistant Thara Uddin, 64, while the pair were returning from midday prayers on 13 August.

"It wasn't me," Oscar Morel told NY Daily News in an interview from a Bronx jail.

"I just want to say I like all types of religions," he added.

He made the comments on 17 August after appearing at a criminal court in Queens the day before, where he was formally charged with the crime.

The charges against him were upgraded from second-degree murder to first-degree murder.

New York Police Department has not yet commented on a possible motives for the shooting, but people in the Ozone Park community in Queens believe the attack was a hate crime.

Uddin's nephew Tamim Uddin told the Washington Post: "The guy came from nowhere and started shooting at them. It was a hate crime. They don't like Muslims – that's it."

Although there has been no official comment on whether the attack is being classed as a hate crime, it has not been ruled out and the city's mayor Bill de Blasio said there was a lot of fear in the Muslim community.

"I assured the members of the Bangladeshi and the Muslim community all over this city that the killer will be brought to justice," he said.

"It is clear there is a lot of fear in the community, it is a very rare thing to see a cleric killed," he added. "And members of the Muslim community have been on edge because of the atmosphere already that existed in this country, particularly over the last few months in our national debate."