200 Returned From Ukraine Pilgrimage With Fake COVID Tests, Israeli Police Suspect

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Arrivals at Ben Gurion airport from Uman, Ukraine on Thursday.
Arrivals at Ben Gurion airport from Uman, Ukraine on Thursday.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP

Over 200 Israelis who returned from an annual Jewish pilgrimage in Ukraine used forged coronavirus tests, despite at least some of them having tested positive for the virus, police said Friday.

According to Israel's Population and Immigration Authority, the passengers in question tested positive before boarding the flight to Israel from Ukraine. 

The arrivals from Uman who are suspected to have used fake tests are suspected of fraud, forgery, and spreading an infectious disease, which is considered a criminal offense in Israel in certain circumstances.

Tens of thousands of Jews – many of them followers of the Bratslav Hasidic sect founded by Rabbi Nachman in the late 18th century – gather for the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave of every year. 

Last year the flights to Uman from Israel were the focus of much political controversy after Health Ministry officials concluded that Israelis should be barred from traveling to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, and the pilgrimage was effectively put on hold. This year, guidelines were drawn up in advance and approved by the coronavirus cabinet.

Under the Health Ministry provisions, passengers heading to Uman must present a negative coronavirus test taken no more than 72 hours before boarding their flight in Israel and another before boarding their return flight. Returning passengers are also required to self-isolate for 14 days, or one week after twice testing negative for the virus.

Ukraine closed its borders in August 2020 amid a surge in COVID-19 infections, blocking most pilgrims from entering the country. About 2,000 ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims, who had traveled through Belarus in hope of reaching Uman, were stuck at the Ukrainian border for several days before eventually turning back without reaching their destination in mid-September. They had camped in a no-man's land between the two countries, some sleeping in makeshift tents and others on the ground, before giving up and heading home.

At the same time, Ukraine's border guard agency said that it had turned back several Hasidic pilgrims who tried to enter the country from Poland, Hungary and Romania.

Last week, the health ministry said that Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Salman Zarka, would travel to Ukraine to supervise the public health aspects of this year’s pilgrimage.

Health Ministry officials wanted to ensure that pilgrims follow the guidelines while in Ukraine, fearing that their return could prompt an outbreak of new coronavirus variants.

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