A 71-year-old Illinois man accused of fatally stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy and seriously wounding his mother was charged with a hate crime on Sunday.
Police alleged Joseph M. Czuba singled out the victims in reaction to the war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas and because of their faith.
Authorities in the U.S. have been on high alert for violence driven by Islamophobic or antisemitic sentiment, while both Muslim and Jewish groups have reported a rise in hateful rhetoric as Israel continues to launch airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip following Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel on October 7.
The Will County Sheriff’s Office said the 32-year-old woman called 911 to report that her landlord had attacked her with a knife. She then ran into a bathroom and continued to fight him off as she called 911.
Authorities did not name the victims, but the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties organization, identified the boy as Wadea Al-Fayoume and the woman as his mother, Hanaan Shahin.
Czuba yelled “you Muslims must die!” as he choked Shahin and attacked her with a knife, she wrote in text messages sent to her son’s father, according to CAIR-Chicago.
They had been living in the home for two years, Ahmed Rehab, the group’s executive director, said during a news conference on Sunday.
Officers found the boy and his mother at a home in an unincorporated area of Plainfield Township, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, on Saturday morning, the sheriff’s office said. The boy was pronounced dead at a hospital, and his mother had sustained multiple stab wounds but was expected to survive.
An autopsy on the boy found he had been stabbed 26 times.
Responding officers found Czuba, of Plainfield, outside the home and “sitting upright outside on the ground near the driveway of the residence” with a cut on his forehead, the sheriff’s office said. He was treated at a local hospital then questioned by detectives.
Czuba “did not make any statements to detectives regarding his involvement in this heinous attack,” the sheriff’s office said.
“Despite the suspect not providing a statement to detectives, personnel were able to gather enough information through interviews and evidence to formally charge Joseph Czuba with numerous criminal offenses.”
He was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of hate crimes and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, according to the sheriff’s office.
“Detectives were able to determine that both victims in this brutal attack were targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis,” the sheriff’s office said.
He was transported to the Will County Adult Detention Facility and is awaiting a court appearance. Newsweek could not immediately reach Czuba for comment and it was not clear if he had an attorney representing him.
CAIR-Chicago, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, called the crime “our worst nightmare” amid a rise in anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic incidents since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
Al-Fayoume “paid the price for the atmosphere of hate and otherization and dehumanization that, frankly, I think we are seeing here in the United States as a result of the irresponsible leadership and lopsided one-sided statements and coverage that we’re seeing in the media,” Rehab said during the news conference.
Czuba, he said, had “built a tree house for the boy and allowed him to swim in a makeshift pool and brought him toys but it wasn’t until he started watching the news and hearing the statements that something changed.”
He added: “Palestinians basically, again, with their hearts broken over what’s happening to their people… have to also worry about the immediate safety of life and limb living here in this most free of democracies in the world.”
Al-Fayoume’s uncle Yousef Hannon also called out the dehumanizing of Palestinians.
“We are not animals, we are humans,” said Hannon, a Palestinan-American who emigrated to the U.S. in 1999 and has worked as a public school teacher. “We want people to see us as humans, to feel us as humans, to deal with us as humans, because this is what we are.”
He said he has not heard from his family located in the besieged Gaza Strip for several days.
“I don’t know what was happening to them right now,” he said. “The last communication was three days ago. No power, no water, no food.”
Israel has cut off the flow of food, medicine, water and electricity into the long-blockaded territory, where an estimated 1 million Palestinians—about half of Gaza’s population— have been displaced. Israel has also positioned forces along the border ahead of an expected ground offensive to dismantle Hamas.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 2,670 Palestinians have been killed and 9,600 wounded since the fighting erupted, The Associated Press reported. More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel in the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 surprise attack, the AP said. More than 100 others were captured by Hamas and taken into Gaza.
The Illinois State Police are communicating with federal law enforcement and reaching out to Muslim communities and religious leaders to offer support in response to the increased threats, according to a press release from Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. FBI Director Chris Wray said on a call with reporters Sunday that the FBI is also moving quickly to mitigate the threats, the AP reported.
“To take a 6-year-old child’s life in the name of bigotry is nothing short of evil,” Pritzker said.
“Wadea should be heading to school in the morning. Instead, his parents will wake up without their son. This wasn’t just a murder—it was a hate crime. And every single Illinoisan—including our Muslim, Jewish, and Palestinian neighbors—deserves to live free from the threat of such evil.”
In a statement on Sunday, President Joe Biden said: “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.
“As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred. I have said repeatedly that I will not be silent in the face of hate. We must be unequivocal. There is no place in America for hate against anyone.”