Mourners gathered in a Chicago suburb on Monday for the funeral of a 6-year-old Muslim boy who was stabbed to death over the weekend by a man who police say targeted him and his mother because they were Palestinian Americans.
Services for the boy, identified as Wadea Al-Fayoume, took place at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, a community southwest of Chicago known as “Little Palestine” for its heavy concentration of Palestinian Americans.
“He’s a very kind kid,” his uncle, who was not identified, said during a press conference on Monday outside the mosque before the service. “He is in a better place.”
In the basement of the mosque, women and children huddled and cried during the press conference. Outside, dozens of people flanked the speakers, including two men who waved Palestinian flags before the group chatted “Free, Free Palestine.”
The killing comes against the backdrop of a fresh crisis in the Middle East after a deadly attack by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians a week ago and subsequent retaliation by Israel in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The conflict has put Jewish and Palestinian Muslim communities in the United States on edge and fearful of a potential backlash against them.
Police said the 6-year-old and his mother - identified as 32-year-old Hanaan Shahin - were attacked by their landlord on Saturday in Plainfield Township, about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Chicago. The boy was stabbed 26 times while his mother suffered multiple wounds. She was expected to survive.
“This is a heavy day. It is a worst nightmare come true. It is something we’ve tried to warn against,” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said on Monday. “It pains me that the sacrificial lamb to this atmosphere was this beautiful young six-year-old boy.”
Iman Negrete, a Palestinian American who lives in Plainfield, is from the same town in the occupied Palestinian territories as the mother. She wept as she stood next to a makeshift memorial made up of stuffed animals, saying she does not feel safe in the community because of her background.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, referring to the boy’s death. “He was Muslim, that’s what happened, he was Muslim and this is what they did, this is what this monster did.”
The boy celebrated his sixth birthday two weeks ago, CAIR’s Rehab told a press conference on Sunday.
“He was a lovely boy. Loved his family, friends. He loved soccer, basketball,” he said. “He paid the price for the atmosphere of hate.”
The boy’s mother came from the West Bank to the United States 12 years ago and his father immigrated nine years ago, Rehab said.
The suspect, Joseph Czuba, 71, was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of hate crime and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, the Will County Sheriff’s Office said.
Czuba made his initial appearance in a Will County Court on Monday. He was appointed a public defender and ordered detained, according to online court records. Czuba did not enter a plea to the charges.
The public defender who is representing Czuba was not immediately available for comment.
Before the stabbings, there were no known issues or conflicts between Czuba and the family, CAIR said.
The boy’s father, Oday El-Fayoume, told The Daily Beast that Czuba had a “good relationship” with the boy’s mother and son, having built a tree house for the small child outside the home they rented from him.
“He is an angel. Basically a small angel in the form of a person,” El-Fayoume said of his son. “It is hard to picture this man holding a knife about to stab my son.”
The boy’s father received text messages from the child’s mother while she was hospitalized, describing the attack and identifying the assailant, Rehab said.
“He asked his wife ... what happened,” Rehab said. “He knocked on the door and attempted to choke her and said, ‘You Muslims must die’ and stabbed her.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland late on Sunday said the U.S. Justice Department would open a federal hate-crime investigation into the attack.
“This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” the statement said.
Since the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East last week, there have scattered reports of violence directed at Palestinians and Jewish communities in the United States.
In Dearborn, Michigan, which has one of the largest concentrations of Muslim people in the nation, a man was charged over the weekend with making a social media post that threatened violence against Palestinian-American residents, police said.