Belarus inflaming Jewish pilgrim standoff, says Ukraine

Kiev (AFP) – The Ukrainian presidency on Wednesday accused Belarus of aggravating tensions along their shared border after Kiev barred entry to some 2,000 Hasidic Jewish pilgrims over coronavirus travel restrictions.

Kiev stopped the pilgrims, who were trying to reach the central Ukrainian city of Uman, in line with its ban on foreign visitors as it battles a sharp increase in new infections.

“We call on the Belarusian authorities to stop creating additional tension on the border,” the Ukraine statement said, accusing Minsk of giving the pilgrims false hope that they would be allowed to enter.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews travel to Uman every Jewish New Year — which falls on September 18-20 this year — to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

The presidency said roughly 2,000 pilgrims, mostly from Israel, had congregated on the border between Belarus and Ukraine “believing rumors that the Ukrainian border with Belarus was open,” the presidency said.

The statement urged Minsk not to spread “false encouraging statements that may give pilgrims the impression that the Ukrainian border may still be open to foreigners.”

A Ukraine border guard spokesman told AFP the pilgrims were attempting to enter the country from different crossings.

Ukraine has closed its borders to foreigners until September as part of reimposed restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday told his officials to negotiate a travel corridor with Kiev for the pilgrims to reach holy sites and offered to coordinate transport.