Ukraine urges Jewish pilgrims stuck at border to turn back

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Jewish pilgrims gather on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. About 700 Jewish pilgrims are stuck on Belarus' border due to coroavirus restrictions that bar them from entering Ukraine. Thousands of pilgrims visit the city each September for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. However, Ukraine closed its borders in late August amid a surge in COVID-19 infections. (TUT.by via AP)

KYIV – Ukraine on Thursday strongly warned thousands of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims who have been stuck on its border for days that it won't allow them into the country due to coronavirus restrictions.

Ukrainian authorities said about 2,000 people have gathered at the border with Belarus, in hope of traveling to the Ukrainian city of Uman to visit the grave of an important Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810, Nachman of Breslov.

Thousands of the ultra-Orthodox Jews visit the city each September for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. It’s celebrated Sept. 18-20 this year, and some pilgrims had managed to get to Uman before Ukraine closed its borders in late August amid a surge in COVID-19 infections. Thousands of others traveled via Belarus, which hasn’t barred foreign visitors from entering.

On Thursday, Ukraine's Interior Ministry official Mykhailo Apostol reaffirmed that the pilgrims will 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 come back to Belarus, buy tickets and go home.”

Israeli Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin tweeted Thursday that efforts to help the pilgrims enter Ukraine have failed, and called on them to return to Israel.

At one point, dozens of Hasidic pilgrims dressed in Ukrainian traditional cossack costumes sang Ukraine's national anthem and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” in an apparent attempt to soften authorities' hearts.

As thousands of pilgrims spent days in the no-man's land between Belarus and Ukraine, some sleeping in makeshift tents and others on the ground, Ukraine and Belarus bickered over the standoff.