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*Warning: distressing descriptions of violence*
Tearful mourners on Monday gathered in prayer at a mosque and placed white and yellow roses at the gravesite of a 6-year-old Muslim boy stabbed to death by a man who police say targeted him and his mother because they were Palestinian Americans.
Services for the boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, took place at the Mosque Foundation in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois, a community known as ‘Little Palestine’ for its heavy concentration of Palestinian Americans.
Palestinian flags hung from the windows of cars in a procession toward the mosque, where a digital billboard read: “Stop inciting violence and hatred against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities.”
In the basement of the mosque, women and children huddled and cried, while outside, dozens of people flanked the speakers, including two men who waved Palestinian flags. Mourners chanted “Free Palestine” at the burial site.
“It’s heartbreaking. This child did not deserve to die from what happened overseas,” Juhie Faheem, one of the mourners and neighbour of the family in Plainfield Township.
“What happened in Plainfield is going to make people understand that this hits closer to home and this child was murdered for being Muslim, but he easily could have been any race, any ethnicity.”
The killing on Saturday came a week after a deadly attack by Hamas Islamist militants on Israeli civilians which triggered 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.
Just since the war between Hamas and Israel broke out, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights group, has reported cases of harassment, intimidation, vandalism or bigoted internet posting from people with responsible positions in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, St Louis and Cleveland, plus Austin, Texas, and Dearborn, Michigan.
Police said the six-year-old and his mother Hanaan Shahin, 32, were attacked by their landlord on Saturday in Plainfield Township, about 64 km southwest of Chicago. The boy was stabbed 26 times while his mother suffered multiple wounds. She was expected to survive.
The assailant attempted to choke the mother and said, “you Muslims must die,” CAIR said, citing text messages that Shahin sent to the boy’s father from the hospital. The man then stabbed the woman and child repeatedly with what police described as long, military-style knife with a serrated edge.
“This is a heavy day. It is a worst nightmare come true,” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago CAIR office, said on Monday. “He was a lovely boy. Loved his family, friends. He loved soccer, basketball. He paid the price for the atmosphere of hate.”
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. He was Muslim, that’s what happened, he was Muslim and this is what they did, this is what this monster did,” Negrete said.
The boy’s mother came from the West Bank to the United States 12 years ago and his father, a Palestinian who was living in Jordan, immigrated nine years ago, Rehab said.
The boy’s father, Oday El-Fayoume, told a press conference before the funeral that he was neither religious nor political but that he hoped his son’s death would promote understanding of what was happening in the Middle East.
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.
The US Justice Department is also opening a federal hate-crime investigation.
Czuba did not enter a plea during his initial appearance on Monday and has been held in custody.
Prosecutors alleged at the hearing that Czuba grew angry about the war and concerned about his Muslim tenants after listening to conservative talk radio, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The public defender representing Czuba was not available for comment.
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