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World

Hundreds of Hasidic Jews held up at Ukraine border over coronavirus

  • Kiev has banned foreigners from entering the country until late September.
15 Sep 2020

KIEV: Hundreds of Hasidic Jews including children, who have sought to travel to a pilgrimage site in Ukraine, are being held up at the country's border with Belarus due to coronavirus restrictions.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews travel every Jewish New Year to the town of Uman in central Ukraine 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 even though last month the Ukrainian and Israeli governments called on Hasidic Jews not to travel to Uman, a town of 80,000 people, this year, fearing a spike in coronavirus infections.

Kiev has banned foreigners from entering the country until late September.

On Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed the situation at the border with the head of the state border guard service, Sergiy Deyneko, his office said. Ukraine had full control of the situation, it added.

In Belarus, strongman Alexander Lukashenko's office said he had told officials to provide assistance to the pilgrims, accusing Ukraine of "shutting its borders" and leaving hundreds of people in neutral territory.

The Belarus Red Cross Society said the pilgrims did not have "enough resources to ensure their basic needs" and assistance was being provided, particularly to parents with children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

As of Tuesday morning, 690 pilgrims were at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border and hundreds more were expected to arrive, Kiev said.

"We expect that three charter planes -- some 600 foreigners -- will arrive in Minsk," Deyneko said, referring to the capital of Belarus.

He said up to 1,000 people were expected to arrive at the border near Ukraine's northern Chernigiv region, while in the northwest up to 700 were expected near Zhytomyr region and up to 1,500 people near Volyn region.

Officials have put up a roadblock 700 metres from a checkpoint in the Chernigiv region and deployed aircraft and drones to monitor the border, Zelensky's office said in a statement.

The Ukrainian authorities have been in touch with the Israeli embassy in Kiev and the pilgrims are receiving water and kosher food from local Jewish organisations.

Separately, the border guard service said people waiting at the border were still trying to enter Ukraine "even after having received explanations and were fully aware of the entry restrictions for foreigners".

Rabbi Nahman is one of the main figures of Hasidism, a mystical branch of Judaism that appeared in the 18th century and which developed in particular in Poland and Ukraine.

Ukraine has reported more than 159,000 cases of coronavirus and over 3,200 fatalities.

Israel is set to impose a three-week lockdown there from Friday, to try to counter a surge in coronavirus infections.