Ukraine bars entry to 1,000 Jewish pilgrims over virus


Novi Yarylovychi (Ukraine) (AFP)

More than one thousand Hasidic Jewish pilgrims including children were massed at the Ukraine-Belarus border on Wednesday after Kiev denied them entry due to coronavirus restrictions, the two countries said.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews travel every Jewish New Year to the central Ukrainian town of Uman to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

This year the Jewish New Year is celebrated September 18-20.

The pilgrims set off this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month called on Hasidic Jews not to travel to Uman, a town of 80,000 people.

Kiev has banned foreigners from entering the country until late September due to a spike in coronavirus infections.

A Ukrainian border guard spokesman, Andriy Demchenko, told AFP "there are around 1,000 people" at the border crossing point.

The Belarus border guard service said 1,064 people had attempted to cross since Monday, including 242 children.

It said it was providing food and warm tents, while pilgrims have complained of being left cold and hungry in the open-air.

- Food and medicines -

The pilgrims are currently stuck between the Ukrainian and Belarusian border crossings after Minsk allowed them to pass.

"At the moment, the situation does not allow us to let an additional number of Hasidic Jews to enter Ukraine," Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Yenin told Ukraina 24 TV channel.

Yenin said the pilgrims would be provided with appropriate food and medical supplies.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers were deployed on the Ukrainian side in the northern Chernigiv region, spending the night in army tents, an AFP correspondent reported from the scene.

"There have been no provocations, no tense situations since yesterday," said Ukrainian border guard spokesman Demchenko.

A video released by Ukraine's border guards on Wednesday showed dozens of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims in traditional garb praying with books in their hands in the middle of a road.

Suitcases and bags were strewn on the ground while kids were looking curiously into the camera.

Ukrainian border guards armed with shields looked on, forming a cordon.

The pilgrims are from Israel and other countries.

Both Ukraine and Israel are keen to avoid a spike in coronavirus infections, with Kiev closing the borders to foreigners until late September while Israel is set to impose a three-week lockdown from Friday.

Ukraine has reported more than 162,000 cases of coronavirus and over 3,340 fatalities.