Muslim boy, 6, mourned after attack in Illinois linked to Middle East war

Outside a mosque in Illinois, a short white casket was draped in a Palestinian flag.

The boy inside, six-year-old Lego-loving soccer fan Wade Al-Fayouma, was too young to understand the complicated politics of the place his Palestinian parents left behind, or this country he grew up in. But, authorities in suburban Chicago said, he still fell victim to those divisions.

Wade, who was supposed to be at the school on Monday, was instead mourned by a huge crowd that filled a large mosque in Bridgeview, Ill., and spilled outside. Prosecutors said he was stabbed to death over the weekend in an attack motivated by hatred of Muslims amid fighting in Israel and Gaza. A short drive away from the mosque, Wade’s 71-year-old landlord, who has been charged with his murder, made his first court appearance.

Family members and friends remembered Wade as a kind child who loved swimming, jumping and playing games, and he celebrated his birthday just a few days ago. Wade’s mother, Hanan Shaheen, who was seriously injured in the attack, was still recovering and could not attend the funeral, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“This is a difficult day that we hoped would never come. As they say, the smallest coffins are the heaviest,” said Rehab.

Saturday’s killing drew condemnations from President Biden and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, as well as outpourings of grief from Muslim leaders across the country, many of whom saw the attack as the result of overheated or one-sided rhetoric about the struggles abroad.

In interviews at the mosque and at a press conference before the funeral, Muslim Americans described their frustration with politicians, including Mr. Biden, who has expressed support for Israel, and American journalists, who they said have often sided with Israel and not fully they reflect the humanity of the Palestinian people.

Since the start of the fighting overseas, and especially since the stabbing over the weekend, several Muslims in the Chicago area have said they are increasingly afraid for the physical safety of their families.

Fariz Burhanuddin, 37, who is a Muslim of Indian origin, said he and his wife struggled with how to talk to their young son about the stabbing.

“I’m looking for words,” he said. “How do you tell a five-year-old about something like this?”

At the same time mourners were gathering in Bridgeview, a man accused of murder appeared in court in Joliet, Ill., about 30 miles away.

In court documents, prosecutors described the landlord, Joseph M. Czuba, as angry, volatile, paranoid and violent. He is charged with murder and hate crimes.

Mr. Czuba, 71, had listened to conservative radio coverage of the Middle East war in the days before the attack, prosecutors said, and wanted his Palestinian-American tenants out of his building. He was increasingly concerned that he was in personal danger because of his association with them, they said.

Judge Donald W. DeWilkins ordered Mr. Czuba to remain in prison without the possibility of release. Mr Czuba appeared in court hunched over and disheveled with his hair blown out, and quietly replied “Yes, sir” when questioned by the judge.

He faces charges of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of hate crime and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. In court, Mr. Czuba requested a public defender.

In front of the Bridgeview Mosque where the funeral was held, a large crowd of people gathered, their cars filling the parking lot and spilling into the side streets. Police officers from all over the Chicago area were stationed on the streets around the mosque.

After the charges were announced, officials in Illinois and Washington quickly issued statements condemning the attack. Mr Biden said he was “shocked and sickened” and that “this horrific act of hate has no place in America”. Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, said that “taking the life of a six-year-old child in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil.”

Mr. Garland announced a federal hate crime investigation and said “this incident cannot help but heighten the fears of our country’s Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities about hate-fueled violence.” The FBI said it was working on the case.

“No one in the United States of America should have to live in fear of violence because of the way they worship or where they or their family come from,” Mr. Garland added.

Wade Al-Fayouma.Credit…CAIR National

Mr. Czuba rented two rooms in his home in Plainfield Township, about 40 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, to Ms. Shaheen, 32, and her son. On Saturday, the morning after the attack, Ms. Shaheen told investigators, Mr. Czuba knocked on her bedroom door and told her he was angry about the war in Israel.

“Let’s pray for peace,” she replied, according to investigators.

But Mr Czuba immediately attacked with a knife, forcing her to flee to the bathroom and lock herself inside, where she called 911. After police arrived, her son was found stabbed 26 times and unresponsive in his bedroom.

Mary Czuba, Mr. Czuba’s wife, told investigators that he had recently become very interested in the conflict in the Middle East and was worried that Ms. Shaheen would “call on her Palestinian friends or family to harm him,” according to prosecutors.

Ms. Czuba also told authorities that her husband had withdrawn $1,000 in cash to prepare for a power outage in the United States.

The Chicago suburb has a large Palestinian-American community, including an area with many Arab restaurants and shops that some call Little Palestine. Saturday’s attack happened in another part of the suburbs, at a home along a busy stretch of highway near a Chevrolet dealership and a barbecue restaurant. The property was decorated with several American flags, an advertisement for organic honey and a sign asking people to pray for an end to abortion.

Neighbor Mariola Jagodzinski, who lives two houses away, described Wade as “a playful kid – really full of energy.” She said she helped Mr. Czuba build a tree house for the boy a few years ago.

“I can’t imagine what the parents are going through,” she said. “As a parent, this is heartbreaking.”

Saturday’s attack came amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip.

On October 7, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, prompting intense retaliation that killed about 2,800 people in Gaza, according to officials there. Throughout the Middle East, the fear of the spread of the conflict and the worsening of the humanitarian crisis grew.

Inside the United States, Muslim and Jewish congregations have stepped up security, and law enforcement officials have said they are monitoring possible hate crimes and other attacks.

Brendan Kelly, director of the Illinois State Police, said everyone in his state “must be vigilant against both terrorism and hate crimes during this period of instability.”

At the mosque where Wade was mourned, many said they hoped the boy’s death would force a rethinking of American discourse about Israelis and Palestinians. The alternative, they feared, could be a return to the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when Muslims across the country were victims of hate crimes and worried about their safety.

Have we learned nothing from 9/11?” Imam Omar Suleiman said in front of the mosque.Do we really want to relive those dark years?”

Johnny Diaz and Aida Alami contributed to the reporting. Jack Begg contributed to the research.

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