Illinois community lays to rest ‘kind’ Palestinian boy killed in hate crime

<span>Photograph: CAIR/Reuters</span>
Photograph: CAIR/Reuters
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Crowds of mourners in a Palestinian Chicago suburb paid respects on Monday to a six-year-old Muslim boy killed in an alleged anti-Islamic hate crime, hours after authorities revealed new details about the evidence used to charge the family’s landlord with stabbing the child and his mother.

Wadea Al-Fayoume, who had recently had a birthday, died on Saturday after being stabbed dozens of times in a brutal attack that drew condemnation from local elected officials to the White House. Authorities said the family’s landlord, Joseph Czuba, was upset over the Israel-Hamas war and attacked them after the boy’s mother proposed they “pray for peace”.

Related: Landlord kills six-year-old Muslim boy and stabs mother in Illinois hate crime

Joe Biden condemned Wadea Al-Fayoume’s fatal stabbing, which authorities say was fueled by the Israel-Hamas war. The president, in a statement issued on Sunday, said he was “shocked and sickened” by the “horrific” killing.

“The child’s Palestinian Muslim family came to America seeking what we all seek – a refuge to live, learn, and pray in peace,” Biden said. “This horrific act of hate has no place in America and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are.”

Family members of Wadea Al Fayoume bring his casket into Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, on 16 October 2023.
Family members of Wadea Al Fayoume bring his casket into Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois. Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP

In Bridgeview, which is home to a large and established Palestinian community, family and friends remembered Wadea as a kind and energetic boy who loved playing games. His body was carried in a small white casket – which was at times draped with a Palestinian flag – through packed crowds.

The Mosque Foundation’s Imam Jamal Said reflected on the boy’s death during the janazah, or funeral service, but also the wider loss of life in the war between Israel and Hamas.

“Wadea is a child, and he is not the only one under attack,” he said. He added that many “children are being slaughtered literally in the Holy Land, unfortunately, which is very sad”.

The suspect in the killing, 71-year-old Joseph Czuba, appeared in court on Monday, charged with murder, attempted murder and hate crime charges after being arrested and held in custody.

A resident of Plainfield, Illinois, he replied “yes, sir”, when asked if he understood the charges, and he was subsequently returned to jail in Joliet, 50 miles south-west of Chicago. A Will county judge granted him the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer.

Investigators alleged Czuba stabbed Wadea and his mother because the family was Muslim. He was their landlord.

The boy’s mother, who was identified by family members as Hanaan Shahin, 32, though authorities used a different spelling, told investigators that she rented two rooms on the first floor of the Plainfield home while Czuba and his wife lived on the second floor, the assistant state’s attorney Michael Fitzgerald said in a court filing.

“He was angry at her for what was going on in Jerusalem,” Fitzgerald said. “She responded to him, ‘Let’s pray for peace’ ... Czuba then attacked her with a knife.”

Mourners place flowers at the grave of Wadea Al-Fayoume at Parkholm Cemetery where the burial took place in LaGrange, Illinois, on 16 October.
Mourners place flowers at the grave of Wadea Al-Fayoume at Parkholm Cemetery where the burial took place in LaGrange, Illinois. Photograph: Jim Vondruska/Reuters

In Bridgeview, the boy’s father briefly spoke to reporters in Arabic, saying he was trying to make sense of what happened to his son and the boy’s mother. He hoped it would be a “bullet to solve the issue” in his homeland.

“I’m here as the father of the boy, not as a politician or religious scholar. I’m here as the father of a boy whose rights were violated,” he said.

In a statement, the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, specifically denounced the killing as a hate crime.

“To take a six-year-old child’s life in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil,” Pritzker said.

He added: “Wadea should be heading to school in the morning. Instead his parents will wake up without their son.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) shared a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, expressing shock over Wadea’s killing while also denouncing anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic rhetoric.

“The Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-Palestinian racism being spread by politicians, media outlets, and social media platforms must stop,” the organization said. “Now.”

Abed A Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, lamented the increase in hate crimes against Palestinians which stemmed from racist rhetoric.

“When networks give airtime to racist Israeli leaders to demonize our people, and push the talking points of a rightwing foreign government, this is the result,” Ayoub said on X. “You have vilified the entire population of Arabs. This didn’t have to happen. The sad reality is that it may happen again.”

Czuba choked and stabbed the child’s mother, according to text messages from the 32-year-old woman that were shared by Cair, the US’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.

As he entered the apartment, Czuba allegedly shouted: “You Muslims must die!”

Czuba allegedly stabbed Wadea with a military-style knife as the boy’s mother attempted to call 911.

The child was stabbed a total of 26 times, the Will county sheriff’s office said in a statement, the Washington Post reported.

The boy’s mother also allegedly suffered more than a dozen stab wounds to the chest, torso and arms before authorities arrested Czuba.

Police found Czuba with a cut on his forehead, sitting on the ground outside the home. The public defender’s office did not immediately return messages seeking comment about the charges against him.

Czuba’s wife, Mary, told police that her husband feared they would be attacked by people of Middle Eastern descent and had withdrawn $1,000 from a bank “in case the US grid went down”, Fitzgerald said in the court document.

The justice department said it opened a hate crime investigation into the attack.

Associated Press contributed to this report.