International

Jewish pilgrims leave border as Ukraine upholds travel ban

Ultra-orthodox Jews hoping to visit the tomb of an important Hasidic rabbi for the Jewish New Year have begun leaving the Ukraine-Belarus border. They had been holding out hope for days a travel ban would be lifted.

Hundreds of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims who have been waiting for days at the Ukraine-Belarus border began leaving Friday after authorities upheld an entry ban on foreigners due to an increase in coronavirus infections. 

Ukrainian authorities estimate that 2,000 people in total had been gathered at the border this week, hoping to continue to the central Ukrainian city of Uman and visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

Thousands of the ultra-Orthodox Jews visit Uman every year in September for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. 

“There are about 700 pilgrims in front of the Ukrainian checkpoint,” compared to around 1,000 Thursday, Ukrainian border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko told AFP news agency. 

Belarusian Border Committee representative Anton Bychkovskiy also confirmed that the numbers “were on the decline.”

Thousands of Israeli Hasidic Jews arrive in Ukraine each year to take part in festive events on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah

Why were the pilgrims stuck?

The pilgrims’ departure comes after a Ukrainian Interior Ministry official, Mykhailo Apostol, reaffirmed Thursday that pilgrims would not be allowed to cross the border. 

“Ukraine has shut its borders to foreigners, and no exclusions will be made for the Hasidic pilgrims,” Apostol told reporters.

“It’s getting colder and we suggest that they go back to Belarus, buy tickets and go home.”

The pilgrims, mainly coming from Israel, France and the US, had departed for Uman this year despite warnings from both the Israeli and Ukrainian governments not to travel due to the pandemic. 

The stranded pilgrims have spent days in the boundary zone between Belarus and Ukraine, with some sleeping in makeshift tents and others on the ground.

Ukrainian and Israeli governments issued a joint statement earlier this year asking pilgrims to cancel their trip because of coronavirus

Tensions between Ukraine and Belarus 

The back up at the border has exacerbated tensions between Kiev and Minsk, following Belarus’ disputed presidential election, and reports that Belarusian security forces were deporting dissidents. 

Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday accused Belarus of giving the pilgrims false hope, saying they had “believed rumors” about entering Ukraine despite strict coronavirus travel restrictions.

Ukraine has closed its borders for most of September, citing rising coronavirus infections. The Hasidic pilgrims had attempted to bypass the entry restrictions by traveling through Belarus.