Turkey-backed militia arrest Kurdish Christian over apostasy in Syria's Afrin

Turkey-backed rebel faction Failaq al-Sham has arrested a Christian Syrian Kurdish man, human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported on Thursday.

The incident was reported to have taken place on July 30.

Radwan Muhammad, an English teacher and headmaster of a school in a northwestern Syrian village near the Afrin province. The 40-year-old man had run into conflict with the group twice recently: Once when his late wife, who had converted from Islam, could not be buried according to the local Christian  traditions, and again when Failaq al-Sham demanded he turn over his school building to be used for Islamic training, CSW said.

“I will hand you the building in one case only: if Jesus Christ comes down to earth again,” Muhammad told the rebels.

Muhammad is most probably held in the Failaq al-Sham headquarters in Afrin, and risks execution, CSW cited Nihad Hassan, pastor of a Kurdish church in Beirut, as saying.

“We are extremely worried about Radwan’s life and wellbeing,” Hassan said. “Those Islamist groups and their Turkish masters are walking in the footsteps of (the Islamic State). In fact, many of their fighters are former IS and al Qaeda members.”

Turkey took control of the Afrin province in March 2018, following several months of intense clashes with the U.S.-backed majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The province was handed over to the so-called Syrian National Army, a collection of Islamist factions under Turkish control.

Kidnappings, ransom and looting have been common occurrences in Afrin since, and many have been arrested over “communication with Kurdish units.”

“We are deeply concerned for Mr Muhammad’s welfare and we urge his abductors to release him immediately and without condition,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said. “We also urge the Turkish authorities to intervene.”

Turkey should restrain the Islamist groups under its control, and “immediately bring to an end all forms of violence and human rights abuses in the areas they control,” Thomas said.

CSW called for an end to persecution of non-Muslims in the area.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern for Muhammad’s safety as well, and called for his release.

“More proof that religious freedom conditions drastically changed in areas that Turkey has  occupied,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza said in a tweet, “compared to when governed by (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria - AANS).”

The autonomous administration was a multi-ethnic, multi-faith project that was established by a majority Kurdish and Arab population, with other ethnicities guaranteed representation. Turkey considers its constituent groups the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and fighting powers People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the SDF to be terrorist groups, over alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, and recognised as such by the European Union and United States.

The AANS lost much of its territory when Turkey started a military incursion into northeast Syria last year to establish a buffer zone in Syrian territory along its southern border, citing threats to its security national security.