Israel tells pilgrims to come home as Ukraine bars entry


Jerusalem (AFP)

An Israeli minister called Thursday on Hasidic Jews hoping to enter Ukraine through Belarus for a pilgrimage to return home, after efforts to enable their access despite coronavirus restrictions failed.

"Ukraine announced it wouldn't allow entry via border crossings or any form of small delegation. I call on our citizens to return to Israel and uphold the quarantine instructions upon their arrival," Higher Education and Water Minister Zeev Elkin, who is Ukrainian-born, said on Twitter.

Kiev stopped the pilgrims, who were trying to reach the central Ukrainian city of Uman, in line with its ban on foreign visitors as it battles a sharp increase in infections.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews head to Uman every Jewish New Year -- which falls on September 18-20 this year -- to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

The believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month had urged them not to travel because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli coalition had pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enable the tradition, despite the objection of health officials who feared the crowded mass event would increase contagion.

As of Wednesday, over 2,000 frustrated Jewish pilgrims, mostly from Israel, were congregated on the Ukraine-Belarus border in the hope they would be permitted entry.

"Despite many efforts to help Israelis trying to enter Ukraine through Belarus or Moldova, we received a final negative answer from the Ukrainian authorities," Elkin said.