Chicago-area Palestinians mourn Muslim boy, 6, allegedly killed over Gaza war

Wadea Al-Fayoume recalled as kind and energetic; attorney says landlord, angered by Middle East violence, stabbed child and mother after she suggested they ‘pray for peace’

Family members of Wadea Al Fayoume, who was killed in an alleged hate crime against the background of the 2023 Gaza war, bring his casket into Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Family members of Wadea Al Fayoume, who was killed in an alleged hate crime against the background of the 2023 Gaza war, bring his casket into Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Crowds of mourners in a heavily Palestinian Chicago suburb paid respects Monday to a 6-year-old Muslim boy killed in an alleged 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 Saturday after being stabbed dozens of times in a brutal attack that drew condemnation from local elected officials and 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.”

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.

Mosque Foundation 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 the Hamas terror group

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

Earlier Monday, Czuba made his first court appearance on murder, attempted murder, and hate crime charges. In detailing the charges Sunday, the Will County Sheriff’s Office determined “both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis.”

This undated photo provided on October 16, 2023, by the Chicago chapter of the Council On American Islamic Relations, shows Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Muslim boy alleged killed by his landlord over the 2023 Gaza war. (CAIR-Chicago via AP)

Czuba, a Plainfield resident, replied, “Yes, sir,” when asked if he understood the charges and was subsequently returned to jail in Joliet, 50 miles (80.4 kilometers) southwest of Chicago. A Will County judge granted a court-appointed lawyer. The public defender’s office did not immediately return messages seeking comment about the charges against him.

The boy’s mother told investigators that she rents two rooms on the first floor of the Plainfield home while Czuba and his wife live on the second floor, 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.”

The boy’s mother fought him off and went into a bathroom where she stayed until police arrived. Wadea, meanwhile, was in his own room, Fitzgerald said.

The mother was identified by family members as Hanaan Shahin, 32, though authorities used a different spelling for her name as well as her son’s name.

On the day of the attack, police found Czuba with a cut on his forehead, sitting on the ground outside the home.

This booking photo provided by the Will County Sheriff’s Office, in Joliet, Ill., shows Joseph M. Czuba, accused of fatally stabbing a young boy and seriously wounding the boy’s mother because of their Islamic faith and the 2023 Gaza war. (Will County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

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.

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.

Community members chanted prayers in unison outside the mosque following the janazah as leaders transported the casket into a hearse. “There is no God, but God,” “The martyr is beloved by God” and “God is greatest,” they chanted, calls many Muslims recite in moments of grief, distress, or remembrance.

At a news conference outside the mosque, speakers called for politicians and media to be responsible with their rhetoric and coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Attendees gathered close to hear, phones recording and expressions somber.

In recent days, Jewish and Muslim groups have reported an increase in hateful rhetoric in the wake of the war. Several cities have stepped up police patrols.

The US Justice Department said it opened a hate crime investigation into the attack.

“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,” US President Joe Biden said.

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