September 16, 2020 / 2:39 PM / 8 days ago

Ukraine and Belarus argue over Hasidic Jewish pilgrims stranded at border

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine accused Belarus on Wednesday of trying to escalate a row over 2,000 Hasidic Jewish pilgrims stranded at a border crossing after Ukrainian border guards did not allow them to enter due to coronavirus restrictions.

Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine for a pilgrimage from the territory of Belarus, gather in front of Ukrainian service members near Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine September 15, 2020. BelaPAN via REUTERS

Relations between Kyiv and Minsk soured after Ukraine joined the European Union in not recognising the result of last month’s election that handed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

The crisis unfolding in Minsk has pushed Lukashenko back closer to traditional ally Moscow, which remains at loggerheads with Ukraine over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office accused the Belarusian authorities of “deliberately or unintentionally” spreading rumours that the border between Belarus and Ukraine remained open and encouraging the pilgrims heading to Ukraine to try that route.

Every Jewish New Year, tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make the pilgrimage to the central Ukrainian town of Uman to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who revived the Hasidic movement and died in 1810.

This year, Jewish New Year celebrations run from Sept 18-20.

Footage released by the Ukrainian government on Wednesday showed the pilgrims, including children, walking around or standing near a line of helmeted Ukrainian border guards at the Novi Yarylovychi checkpoint. Tents were pitched along the road.

“We call on the Belarusian authorities to stop creating additional tensions on the border with our country and spreading false and encouraging statements to pilgrims, which may give them the feeling that Ukraine’s border may still be open to foreigners,” Zelenskiy’s office said in a statement.

“We are also forced to state that the personal insult of certain persons in the de facto current Belarusian government extends today, unfortunately, to the plane of interstate relations,” it added, without elaborating.

Lukashenko on Tuesday offered to create a “green corridor” for the pilgrims to travel to Uman on buses and then ferry them back to Belarus, the state news agency Belta quoted his spokeswoman Natalya Eismont as saying.

Eismont could not be reached for comment on Ukraine’s statement.

Ukraine has imposed a temporary ban on foreigners entering the country to tackle a spike in coronavirus deaths, which hit a new record on Wednesday.

It said the ban was partly in response to a plea from Israel, where many of the pilgrims come from, to limit the event, for fear it would be a coronavirus hotspot.

Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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