(NEW YORK) — The father of a 6-year-old Muslim boy killed in a stabbing attack officials said was fueled by Islamophobic hate, made an emotional plea Wednesday for justice and exhorted Americans to reject bigotry and “embrace the diversity that makes our nation so beautiful.”
Odai Al-Fayoume spoke at a vigil outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Illinois, that was held before a pretrial hearing for Joseph Czuba, the 71-year-old Air Force veteran accused of stabbing his son, Wadea Al-Fayoume, 26 times and knifing the boy’s mother in an October attack at their suburban Chicago apartment.
Czuba was the victims’ landlord and authorities alleged he stabbed them over the Hamas surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
“I stand before you with a heavy heart, one that’s weighted down by immense grief of losing my dear Wadea,” Al-Fayoume said as a crowd behind him held candles on Wednesday.
Speaking through an interpreter, Al-Fayoume said he will not rest until justice is achieved for his son and his son’s mother, Hanna Shahin, who survived the attack.
“Wadea deserves nothing less than that. We owe it to him to seek justice,” Al-Fayoume said. “However, I also want to take a moment to address a larger issue that we cannot ignore: My son was the victim not only of violence but also of prejudice and hatred. He was targeted because of his faith, because he was Muslim and that is something we must confront as a society.”
He added, “My son’s memory will serve as a reminder that we must keep working to create a more inclusive society. Let his life inspire us to reject bigotry and to embrace the diversity that makes our nation so beautiful.”
Czuba appeared in court Wednesday morning for a brief status hearing. He pleaded not guilty on Oct. 30 to charges of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, and two counts of committing a hate crime.
The stabbing unfolded on Oct. 14 when Czuba showed up at the family’s home in Plainfield Township and allegedly confronted Shahin over the violence in the Israel, prosecutors said. Shahin told investigators that she attempted to calm Czuba down by asking him to pray with her for peace.
Czuba allegedly stabbed Shahin multiple times, prompting her to lock herself in a bathroom and call the police, prosecutors said. While Shahin was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, Czuba allegedly turned rage toward her child, stabbing him repeatedly with the seven-inch blade of his “military-style knife,” prosecutors said.
“We entered a plea of not guilty on all the charges,” one of Czuba’s attorneys, George Lenard, said statement following Czuba’s not-guilty plea on Oct. 30. “Also in court today, we’re in the process of conducting our own investigation. As you know, our client is presumed not guilty of all charges. We are going to do the best we can to protect all his constitutional rights and make sure that he receives a fair trial by an impartial jury.”
The attack came amid an increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents around the country in the aftermath of Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel. The stabbing incident prompted a warning from the FBI director that violence erupting in Israel and Gaza could spill over to the United States as more domestic “lone actors” seek to spread antisemitic and Islamophobic hate.
President Joe Biden also issued a statement shortly after the boy’s killing, saying, “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.”
Odai Al-Fayoume described his son on Wednesday, who was born in America to parents of Palestinian and Jordanian descent, as a “remarkable child.”
“He was filled with dreams and aspirations,” the father said. “He loved basketball, soccer and Legos. He carried the bright light of hope wherever he went and was always smiling.”
Odai Al-Fayoume said he will continue to work with prosecutors and law enforcement to “ensure that Joseph Czuba is held responsible to the maximum amount under the law for his horrific act.”
In an interview with ABC News just days after she was attacked, Shahin said she continues to “pray for peace.”
“Our God wants love and peace to be between us,” she said.
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