Hasidic Jewish Pilgrims Block Ukraine Border When Barred Entry Over Coronavirus Fears

Both the Ukranian and Israeli governments have attempted to limit the pilgrimage to Uman

Reuters
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Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather in front of Ukrainian service members near Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine, September 15, 2020.
Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather in front of Ukrainian service members near Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine, September 15, Credit: Breslev live/Handout via REUTERS
Reuters

Hundreds of Hasidic Jews who set off on a pilgrimage to Ukraine despite coronavirus restrictions blocked the frontier with Belarus on Tuesday after border guards would not let them in.

A video posted by Ukrainian border guards showed dozens of Jews, including children, in traditional dress, carrying suitcases and wandering along a roadway amid parked trucks.

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They sang songs and some danced. The guards said they had been forced to stop traffic on Monday night on the crossing at Novi Yarylovychi between Belarus and northern Ukraine because the pilgrims were in the way.

By early afternoon on Tuesday some three dozen waiting trucks had moved through and more than a hundred police and national guardsmen were setting up tents for the night.

"The situation is under control," Ukrainian border guard official Oleksander Pavlik told reporters, adding that the pilgrims had been given food and water.

Every Jewish New Year, tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make the pilgrimage to the central Ukrainian town of Uman to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who revived the Hasidic movement and died in 1810.

Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather at Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine September 14, 2020.
Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather at Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine September 14, 2020.Credit: State Border Guard Service of Ukraine/Reuters

This year, Jewish New Year celebrations run from September 18 through 20.

Ukraine imposed a ban on the entry of foreigners on August 26 to September 28 due to the coronavirus epidemic.

It said the ban was partly in response to a plea from Israel, where many of the pilgrims come from, to limit the event, for fear it would be a coronavirus hotspot.

"I don't know who promised to whom the passage of 3,000 citizens," the head of Ukraine's border service Serhiy Deineko told the group on the border. "You were deceived."

One of the pilgrims, contacted by telephone, said they had been promised by Belarusian and Ukrainian officials they would be allowed to enter Ukraine. He did not specify which officials.

"I spent the night on the bus, but most of them spent the night right on the road, some gathered branches in the forest and lit fires. We have no food or water, we have children with us, about 100 children", said the man, who gave only his first name, Benjamin.

He said now they were not allowed to enter Ukraine and not allowed to return to Belarus. The Belarusian border guard service said there were 734 people in the group, including 40 children under 12.

Pilgrims are not among exceptions to Ukraine's ban on movement and its foreign ministry urged all travellers to respect the rules to avoid difficulties at checkpoints.

It also asked the Belarusian side not to register people to cross who are not allowed into Ukraine. BelTa state agency quoted Belarusian authorities as saying they allowed returning pilgrims back and said numbers were growing.

"All of them... are awaiting a decision on admission by Ukrainian side," it said. "As of the morning of September 15, the work of the Ukrainian checkpoint... has not been resumed."

The Ukrainian authorities said Belarus had allowed 200 more pilgrims into the border area since Tuesday morning.

The Rabbi Nachman Foundation issued a statement saying it had asked Ukrainian officials to allow the pilgrims to come.

"Therefore, in this situation, we ask you to make an exception and let them into Ukraine."

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