Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday asked his government to negotiate with Ukraine to create a “green corridor” for over a thousand Jewish pilgrims massed at the border, as the members of the Bratslav Hasidic sect pressed to be allowed to travel to the visit the grave of a revered rabbi for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in response not to let the Hasidim into his country, citing a ban on all visitors to the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Up to 2,000 pilgrims, including over 100 children, have gathered between border crossings after the Belarus side allowed them to pass but Ukrainian forces denied them entry because of coronavirus restrictions.
The would-be pilgrims, most of them Israeli, are seeking to visit Uman, a city some 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Ukraine that is home to the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.
Some 30,000 people travel to the city annually for the pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Friday.
Though the pilgrims’ border plight was first and foremost a result of Ukraine shutting its borders, those stuck at the border also seemed to be victims of warring narratives and interests of the two neighboring governments.
Ukraine’s government announced in August that no tourists would be allowed into the country throughout September due to the spiraling pandemic. It has also said celebrations in Uman for those already in the city will be heavily restricted. Kyiv had been pressed by Israel’s top coronavirus official to ban the travelers, fearing crowding at the pilgrimage site.
However, this has not stopped thousands of Hasidim from attempting to slip through the border, through bribery or other means, to reach Uman.
In a statement, the office of the Ukrainian leader said most of the pilgrims waiting at the border had come from Israel, “trusting rumors that Ukraine’s border with Belarus is allegedly open.”
It said the state of the pandemic in the country did not allow anyone to be let through.
“Just as in the spring we had to limit people’s participation in the celebration of Easter, we now explain that the mass celebration of Rosh Hashanah with the participation of thousands of pilgrims in the city of Uman, the Cherkasy region of Ukraine, unfortunately, is impossible,” the statement said.
Ukraine also criticized Belarus’s leadership, with which it has experienced tensions over the contested reelection of strongman Lukashenko. Ties between Belarus and Ukraine have been strained after Lukashenko accused Kyiv of stoking political unrest and mass protests that erupted after he claimed victory in disputed elections last month.
The Ukrainian presidency urged Minsk to stop “spreading false and encouraging statements to pilgrims, which may give them the feeling that Ukraine’s border may still be open to foreigners.”
And it added that “the personal insult of certain persons in the de facto current Belarusian government extends today, unfortunately, to the plane of interstate relations.”
Ukraine has urged Belarus to stop allowing people over the countries’ border that it knows will not be allowed in, so far, it appears, to no avail.
Though the pilgrims have been widely described in the media as stranded at the border, there did not appear to be anything preventing them from turning back to Belarus. The country’s Belta state-owned news agency reported that some had returned since the border crisis began.
Lukashenko’s spokesperson Natalya Eismont said Belarus was ready to provide transport for the believers to sites in Ukraine and then back to the airport in Minsk.
Without a solution to the crisis, the thousands, who as religious Jews shun traveling on holy days, may be forced to spend the Jewish New Year — which falls on September 18-20 this year — in Belarus or on the side of a road near the border.
The believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month called on pilgrims not to travel. Top rabbis in Ukraine also warned of the dangers of infection and urged pilgrims to reconsider.
The pilgrims have blamed the Israeli government for Ukraine closing its borders to them, though tourists from all other countries are also blocked.
Ukraine has experienced a steady rise in infection rates since March, with some 3,000 daily cases record in recent days. Meanwhile, 76 people died in the country on Tuesday, with 50 deaths a day not uncommon in recent weeks. Ukraine has reported more than 162,000 cases of coronavirus and over 3,340 fatalities.
Chabad officials in the country have described the Ukrainian health system as being on the verge of collapse, unable to handle the influx of cases.
Both governments have said they would provide the stranded crowds with supplies, though pilgrims have complained of being left cold and hungry.
‘Just let us in!’
The head of Ukraine’s border guard Sergiy Deyneko addressed the pilgrims in a video released by his service on Wednesday, saying no one would be allowed to enter the country.
“I respect your traditions and customs, but this year you will not be able to get to Uman. I am ready to repeat this, if necessary, a thousand times,” he said.
Ukraine’s border guard service said the pilgrims were trying to enter Ukraine “even after having received explanations and were fully aware of the entry restrictions for foreigners.”
The video showed hundreds of Hasidic Jews trying to persuade Ukrainian border guards to make an exception.
“We are ready for any conditions and instructions on the coronavirus. Just let us in!” read a handwritten sign carried by one of the religious believers in the video.
“At the moment, the situation does not allow us to let an additional number of Hasidic Jews enter Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Yenin told Ukraine 24 TV channel.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers were deployed on the Ukrainian side in the northern Chernigiv region, spending the night in army tents, an AFP correspondent reported from the scene.
Ситуация на границе с Украиной: приехал губернатор Гомельщины Геннадий Соловей. Хасиды его окружили и поют. pic.twitter.com/fzNSgJNenJ
— TUT.BY (@tutby) September 15, 2020
“There have been no provocations, no tense situations since yesterday,” said Ukrainian border guard spokesman Demchenko.