Turkish-backed Syrian rebels walk past a burning shop in Afrin, where they also set a church on fire and spray-painted its walls with jihadist slogans.

Significant numbers of Christians and Yazidis have fled their homes in northern Syria’s Afrin enclave, World Magazine reports, ever since Islamist militants joined with the Turkish military this past January to oust Syrian Kurdish fighters from the region along Turkey’s border.

Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) to be a terrorist group with strong links to the Kurdish PKK insurgency, which has been fighting a decades-long armed battle against the Turkish military.

So after US forces had armed and supported the YPG in its successful defeats of the Islamic State in Kobani, Raqqa and other Syrian cities, the US proposal to include the YPG in a large ‘border security force’ to patrol inside Syria’s borders was vehemently opposed by Turkey.

The resulting Turkish military offensive into neighboring Syria, dubbed ‘Operation Olive Branch’ by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was explained by Ankara as “an act of self-defence against a build-up of terrorists”.

But in addition to Turkish air and ground assaults, Turkey also deployed some 35,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel militia including dozens of jihadist groups.

One Christian mother told the charity Free Burma Rangers that up to 3,000 Christians and 35,000 Yazidis were among the mostly Kurdish 250,000 residents who fled Afrin during the two-month offensive concluded in March. Turkish authorities said more than 4,000 Kurdish terrorists were “neutralised” (either surrendered or were killed or captured) in the war.

According to the World report, “FSA soldiers went door-to-door, searching for Kurdish fighters but also forcing Christians and other non-Muslims from their homes. They installed Sharia law, allowing fighters to ‘legally’ target non-Muslims who’ve lived peacefully in the area.”

In Afrin city the fighters set fire to the Church of the Good Shepherd and spray-painted its walls with jihadist slogans. More than 200 families used to attend the church, but of the estimated 3,000 Christians who had lived in Afrin, none are left, its pastor Valentin Hanan said.

‘Atheist pigs’

Church leaders in Afrin and Damascus had called in January for protection from the international community after the area in the Aleppo governorate came under fire from Turkish ground and air troops.

Signs of jihadist activity had been noted for months in surrounding villages, according to World: “One jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, boasts on its website of its work in Afrin, saying it has opened offices to recruit local fighters to kill ‘atheist pigs’ and has taken over mosques to promote ‘the true values of Islam.’”

Although the offensive was completed in March, since then, Turkish-backed armed groups in the FSA have “seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria”, Human Rights Watch reported on 14 June.

“The anti-government armed groups have installed fighters and their families in residents’ homes and destroyed and looted civilian properties without compensating the owners,” the rights group said, adding that “these fighters are perpetuating a cycle of abuse” and that “Turkey and FSA groups in Afrin should compensate displaced residents whose property they have seized, destroyed, or looted”.

Members of the FSA have also been implicated in the destruction of a fifth-century church in the town of Maaloula, which had been a seat of Christian learning before the war.