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World News

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims stranded at Ukraine airports after travel ban

KYIV (Reuters) - Hasidic Jews arriving in Ukraine for an annual pilgrimage were stranded at airports on Friday after the government partially closed the border, a representative of the Rabbi Nachman International Charitable Foundation said.

Ukraine restricted the entry of foreign nationals to fight a recent spike in coronavirus cases and also partly in response to a request from Israel to prohibit travel to a pilgrimage site in Ukraine, fearing it could become a coronavirus hotspot.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews descend on the town of Uman every Jewish New Year to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who revived the Hasidic movement and died in 1810. Jewish New Year celebrations run from Sept. 18-20 this year.

The head of Israel’s coronavirus task force had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to ban the pilgrimage this year.

Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation said hundreds had initially been stranded on Friday, although she later said some were being let through.

“It seems they have begun to let them in. But not all of them,” Rybnitskaya told Reuters. There was no kosher food available where they were kept, she added.

Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for the border service, told Interfax Ukraine that dozens of Hasidic Jews had been stopped at airports this week as border guards could not confirm the purpose of their trip.

“We do not make decisions on any discriminatory criteria. We make decisions that help protect the health of our citizens, regardless of their nationality, citizenship or religion,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday.

Mikhail Tkach, Executive Director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, said the pilgrims had been warned in advance there could be problems on arrival.

“I don’t know what they were counting on, it’s difficult to understand their logic,” said Tkach.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Peter Graff

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