Ukraine Urges Jewish Pilgrims Stuck at Border to Turn Back

Ukraine Urges Jewish Pilgrims Stuck at Border to Turn Back
Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather in front of Ukrainian service members near Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine, on Sept. 15, 2020. (Breslev live/Handout via Reuters)
The Associated Press
9/17/2020
Updated:
9/17/2020

KYIV, Ukraine—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.

 Jewish pilgrims gather on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, on Sept. 15, 2020. (TUT.by via AP)
Jewish pilgrims gather on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, on Sept. 15, 2020. (TUT.by via AP)

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.”

 Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather near a border crossing point in Gomel Region, Belarus, on Sept. 15, 2020. (Breslev live/Handout via Reuters)
Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather near a border crossing point in Gomel Region, Belarus, on Sept. 15, 2020. (Breslev live/Handout via Reuters)

Israeli Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin wrote on Twitter 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.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s presidential office accused Belarusian authorities of issuing misleading signals to the pilgrims that they would eventually be allowed to cross the border. Belarusian officials shot back accusing Ukraine of “inhumane” treatment of the pilgrims, and offered to provide buses to drive the pilgrims to Uman and back to Belarus.

Ukraine’s presidential office alleged Wednesday that Belarusian authorities’ actions could be rooted in the latest tensions between the two neighbors following Belarus’ controversial presidential election.

Ukraine has joined the United States and the European Union in criticizing the Aug. 9 vote, in which President Alexander Lukashenko extended his 26-year authoritarian rule, as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to end their crackdown on protesters.