A 6-year-old Palestinian-American was stabbed 26 times for being Muslim, police say. His mom couldn’t go to his funeral because she was stabbed, too

Originally Published: 16 OCT 23 08:20 ET
Updated: 16 OCT 23 20:16 ET

Joliet, Illinois (CNN) — Loved ones and strangers united in grief Monday at the funeral of a 6-year-old Chicago-area boy who was killed because he was Muslim, officials say.

Wadea Al Fayoume was stabbed 26 times Saturday by his family’s landlord in Plainfield Township, Illinois, the Will County Sheriff’s Office said.

His 32-year-old mother, Hanaan Shahin, also suffered more than a dozen stab wounds, the sheriff’s office said.

Shahin’s serious injuries prevented her from attending her son’s funeral, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Chicago office. In accordance with tradition, deceased Muslims are buried as soon as possible after death.

The mother “will be feeling Wadea’s loss more than anyone, but she is forced to mourn alone rather in the warm embrace of family and community at this time,” Rehab said, adding she “is fighting serious bodily injuries at the hospital, not to mention the mental trauma of the gore she experienced and witnessed.”

The attack is now being investigated by the Department of Justice as a hate crime.

“This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

The boy’s parents are from a village in the West Bank, Rehab said. Wadea’s mother moved to the United States 12 years ago, his father moved to the US nine years ago, and Wadea was born in the US.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker was among the mourners who attended Wadea’s funeral Monday, his office said.

“To take a six year old child’s life in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil,” Pritzker said in a statement. “Every single Illinoisan – including our Muslim, Jewish and Palestinian neighbors – deserves to live free from the threat of such evil.”

Court document reveals what led up to attack

The family’s landlord, Joseph M. Czuba, 71, is charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of a hate crime and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, the Will County Sheriff’s Office said.

While Czuba did not make a statement to detectives, investigators determined the victims were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis,” the sheriff’s office said.

According to a Monday court filing, Czuba’s wife told investigators after the incident that on October 11, he told her he wanted Wadea and his mother to move out of the home. The wife also told investigators that Czuba “believed that they were in danger and that (Shahin) was going to call over her Palestinian friends or family to harm them,” according to the filing.

Shahin told authorities, according to the filing, that on October 11, Czuba also confronted her “about what was going on in the Middle East.”

Shahin told authorities that on Saturday, moments before the stabbings unfolded, Czuba told her he was angry at her for what was going on in Jerusalem.

“Shahin stated she responded to him ‘let’s pray for peace.’ Shahin stated Czuba gave her no chance to do anything. Shahin stated that Czuba then attacked her with a knife,” according to the filing.

Shahin told police she was able to get away by locking herself in the nearby bathroom, but was not able to get her son. While in there, she called police, according to the filing. “While on the phone with 911 Hanan stated, her son was being stabbed,” the document said.

Responding officers found Czuba outside. Shahin was sitting in the front of the house with “multiple facial wounds and was bleeding profusely,” the filing said.

The boy was transferred to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the document said.

Suspect appears in court

Czuba spoke only briefly at an initial court appearance Monday in Joliet, telling Judge Donald DeWilkins that he intended to have his assigned public defender represent him in the case.

Prosecutors told the judge Czuba and his tenant, Shahin, got into an argument Saturday over the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The argument became heated and Czuba turned violent toward Shahin, according to the prosecution.

The mother went to hide in the bathroom and call 911, and while hiding, she later told investigators, she could hear her son being stabbed by Czuba, prosecutors said.

The prosecution read statements from Shahin in court that said Czuba had been following the recent Middle East conflict closely and had asked the family to move out of the residence once the conflict started.

His attorney, Kylie Blatti, told the court Czuba is married and has no prior convictions. But the judge ordered Czuba to be held without bond.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for October 30.

A peaceful family destroyed by violence

The boy’s family lived on the ground floor of the house for two years without “previous notable issues” with Czuba, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said.

That tranquility was shattered Saturday.

A woman called 911 saying her landlord had attacked her, according to the sheriff’s office. Authorities went to the home about 40 miles southwest of Chicago and discovered the grisly scene.

When deputies arrived, they found Czuba sitting on the ground, near the home’s driveway.

The mother and son were found in a bedroom. “Both victims had multiple stab wounds to their chest, torso, and upper extremities,” the Will County Sheriff’s Office said.

Both were rushed to a hospital, but the 6-year-old did not survive.

Wadea’s wounded mother texted the boy’s father from the hospital and described what had happened.

She said the landlord “knocked on their door, and when she opened, he tried to choke her and proceeded to attack her with a knife, yelling, ‘you Muslims must die,’” CAIR said.

“This despicable hate crime is a shameful reminder of the destructive role Islamophobia plays in our society,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden condemned the attack.

“As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred,” the Bidens said in a statement.

“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.”

The Bidens noted the “child’s Palestinian Muslim family came to America seeking what we all seek – a refuge to live, learn, and pray in peace.”

Devastation in the Middle East spreads to the US

Thousands of civilians – including dozens of US citizens – have been killed in Israel and Gaza since Hamas militants launched deadly attacks in Israel more than a week ago and Israel responded by pounding Gaza with airstrikes.

At least 1,400 people in Israel were killed during Hamas’ rampage, the Israel Defense Forces told CNN on Sunday. They include children who were “butchered,” the Israeli military said.

Israel’s subsequent strikes on Gaza have killed more than 2,750 people – including many women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated into a “complete catastrophe,” aid workers said, with Palestinian civilians suffering dwindling access to water and food.

As the crisis escalates in the Middle East, so do reports of possible hate crimes in the US.

A New York City bus passenger wearing a turban and a mask was punched multiple times Sunday by someone who tried to remove his turban, police said.

Police also charged a 19-year-old with assault and harassment as a hate crime after he allegedly attacked a Columbia University student who was hanging up posters on campus in support of Israel last week.

And the stabbing death of 6-year-old Wadea highlights the need to stop hate-fueled attacks, CAIR said.

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

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