Hasidic Jewish pilgrims leave Ukraine border over virus ban

Kiev (AFP) –

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Hundreds of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims, who had massed along the Belarusian border attempting to enter Ukraine, began leaving Friday after Kiev upheld an entry ban to guard against the coronavirus.

At least 1,000 Orthodox-Jewish believers were camped out this week in no-man's land between Ukrainian and Belarusian border crossings ahead of Jewish New Year celebrations which begin Friday and last until Sunday.

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

The standoff between the pilgrims and armed Ukrainian security services sparked tensions at the Novi Yarylovychi border crossing and inflamed a diplomatic row between Minsk and Kiev.

Ukrainian border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko said the number of believers hoping to enter Ukraine was steadily decreasing.

"There are about 700 pilgrims in front of the Ukrainian checkpoint," compared to around 1,000 on Thursday, he told AFP.

Demchenko added that he hoped those still seeking to make the journey to Uman understood that "the entry-ban decision will not be revised".

Belarus, which earlier said the pilgrims should be allowed to visit holy sites in Ukraine, confirmed that some religious believers had given up hope of being allowed to make the crossing.

Belarus's state border committee representative, Anton Bychkovskiy, said that the numbers of pilgrims at border posts "were on the decline".

- Diplomatic spat -

The believers -- mainly Israeli, but also American and French -- departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month urged them not to travel because of the pandemic.

An Israeli minister on Thursday called on those massed on the border to return home and uphold quarantine rules on arrival in Israel.

Kiev closed its borders for most of the month of September citing a growing number of coronavirus infections, but the pilgrims attempted to bypass the restrictions by travelling through Belarus.

Ukrainian border guards announced Friday they had arrested several pilgrims, including Israeli and US citizens, trying to enter the country illegally from Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Kiev has reported more than 169,000 cases of coronavirus and 3,468 fatalities. On Thursday, officials registered a record one-day increase in infections.

The standoff on the border aggravated already strained ties between Kiev and Minsk, which have traded barbs over disputed presidential elections in Belarus last month.

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko earlier told his officials to negotiate a travel corridor with Ukraine and offered to provide buses to transport religious believers to holy sites in Ukraine.

Kiev in turn accused Belarusian authorities of giving false hope to the Hasidic pilgrims that they would eventually be allowed to travel to Uman.

Both Ukraine and Israel are keen to avoid a spike in coronavirus infections. Israel is poised to impose a second nationwide lockdown on Friday to tackle one of the world's highest coronavirus infection rates, despite public protests over the new blow to the economy.

The three-week shutdown from 1100 GMT starts just hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

Meanwhile, up to 3,000 Hasidic Jews have arrived in Uman for the celebrations entering Ukraine before the ban, police said.

Law enforcement has tightened security near Rabbi Nachman's tomb where pilgrims have congregated.

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