Jewish New Year: Virus restrictions thwart pilgrims on Ukraine-Belarus border

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Image source, Reuters
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The Ukrainian and Israeli governments had called on Hasidic Jews not to travel to Uman this year

Hundreds of Hasidic Jews have been stranded at the border between Ukraine and Belarus as coronavirus restrictions impede an annual pilgrimage.

The pilgrims were travelling to the central Ukrainian town of Uman to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

Every year thousands make the journey to mark the Jewish New Year, which in 2020 runs from 18 to 20 September.

However, Ukraine has closed its borders to limit the spread of coronavirus.

As the pilgrims - many of them from Israel - attempted to enter Ukraine this week, they were stopped by border guards.

They began their journey despite appeals from both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments asking them not to travel to Uman this year, fearing a spike in coronavirus infections.

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Image caption,
Ukrainian authorities said the Hasidic Jews were not exempt from the travel ban

Ukraine has restricted entry to foreigners from 28 August to 28 September to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Israel has imposed a new national lockdown, with tough restrictions coming into effect on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Despite this, Ukrainian authorities said hundreds more pilgrims were expected to seek entry to the country in the coming days.

On Tuesday, estimates varied as to how many were already at Ukraine's borders.

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Traffic had to be stopped at the border on Monday night

Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities put the number at about 700, but the Times of Israel reported that there were at least 1,000 pilgrims trapped at the border.

Pictures from the border show dozens of Hasidic Jews wearing traditional dress and carrying luggage as they wandered along a road thronged by lorries.

On Monday night Ukrainian guards said they had to stop traffic on the crossing at Novi Yarylovychi, because the pilgrims were in the way.

Some pilgrims had set up makeshift tents, while others slept on their luggage in front of the lorries.

"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," one pilgrim told Reuters news agency. "We have no food or water."


The Red Cross Society of Belarus said the pilgrims did not have "enough resources to ensure their basic needs" and assistance was being provided.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has told officials to provide assistance to the pilgrims, accusing Ukraine of "shutting its borders" and leaving hundreds of people in neutral territory.

Ukraine's government has insisted it will not waive the travel restrictions.

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

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ukraine's border service head Serhiy Deyneko (R) spoke to pilgrims at the border

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed the situation with Mr Deyneko, his office said. Ukraine had full control of the situation, it added.

The Belarusian border service said it was helping pilgrims return to Belarus, according to state news agency Belta.

In the meantime, many pilgrims remain camped out at the border, in the hope Ukrainian authorities will allow them to enter the country before Jewish New Year, Belta reported.

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