Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israel plea

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims at a Belarus/Ukraine border crossing, September 16, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israel plea

  • The mainly American, French and Israeli believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month urged them not to travel
  • A video released by Ukraine’s border guards on Thursday showed tents and sleeping bags on the roadside along with piles of garbage

KIEV: Around 1,000 Hasidic Jews were massed on Ukraine’s border Thursday, with some vowing to stay, even though Kiev refused their entry citing coronavirus restrictions and Israel urged them to return.
Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews travel to the central Ukrainian city of 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 mainly American, French and Israeli believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month urged them not to travel because of the pandemic.
Kiev has closed its borders for most of the month of September but the pilgrims attempted to bypass the restrictions by traveling through Belarus.
Speaking to AFP from the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, one of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, Itsik Cohen, said the believers were hoping for divine intervention.
“I’m waiting and praying that they open the borders, so we can have the privilege of being with our Rabbi, God willing,” said Cohen, an Israeli Breslov Hassid from Jerusalem.
“We believe in God, and if God wants it this way, we need to do anything we can to show our determination, to the very last minute.”
Ukrainian authorities said the situation had not changed since Monday when crowds of believers began building up on the closed Ukraine border and pilgrims were still refusing to leave.
A video released by Ukraine’s border guards on Thursday showed tents and sleeping bags on the roadside along with piles of garbage.
“They are dancing, they are singing, they are praying,” the spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, told AFP.
He said that some 1,000 pilgrims had reached the no-man’s land at several border crossings, while the total number of believers in Belarus hoping to cross was closer to 2,000.
Ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli coalition had pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enable the tradition, despite the objection of health officials who feared the crowded mass event would increase contagion.
But an Israeli minister indicated Thursday that efforts to enable ultra-Orthodox believers’ access to Uman had failed.
“Ukraine announced it wouldn’t allow entry via border crossings or any form of small delegation,” Higher Education and Water Minister Zeev Elkin, who is Ukrainian-born, said on Twitter.
“I call on our citizens to return to Israel and uphold the quarantine instructions upon their arrival.”
Moshe Garcin, a 44-year-old pilgrim who arrived in Uman days before Ukraine closed its borders, told AFP that “it’s not for them (Israel government) to say this.”
And pilgrim Cohen dismissed the Israeli minister’s call.
“Elkin doesn’t determine the reality, there’s a God in the world,” he said.
Both Ukraine and Israel are keen to avoid a spike in coronavirus infections, with Kiev closing the borders to foreigners until late September.
Israel is set to be the first developed country to enforce a second nationwide shutdown, to begin on Friday afternoon.
The Belarus border guard service said 1,216 people had attempted to cross since Monday, including 337 children.
The pilgrims’ standoff on the border has led to diplomatic tensions between Ukraine and Belarus.
Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday accused Belarus of giving them false hope of entering despite the restrictions by spreading “rumors” that the Ukrainian border may still be open to foreigners.
Minsk has called on Kiev to open dialogue with the pilgrims and show respect for their rights.
“The Red Cross came and gave us water, hot water and cold water and tea, and provided medical care to whoever needed it,” pilgrim Cohen said.
Meanwhile, up to 3,000 Hasidic Jews have arrived in Uman for the celebrations, local police said. Law enforcement has tightened security near Rabbi Nachman’s tomb where pilgrims have congregated.
Ukraine has reported more than 166,000 cases of coronavirus and 3,400 fatalities.
On Thursday, Ukraine reported a new daily record of 3,584 coronavirus infections.


French police target extremist networks after teacher’s beheading

Updated 35 min 35 sec ago

French police target extremist networks after teacher’s beheading

  • President Emmanuel Macron: Extremists should not be allowed sleep soundly in our country
  • French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom

PARIS: French police on Monday launched a series of raids targeting extremist networks three days after the beheading of a history teacher who had shown his pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

The operation came a day after tens of thousands of people took part in rallies countrywide to honor history teacher Samuel Paty and defend freedom of expression.

Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin said “dozens” of individuals were being probed for suspected radicalization.

While they were “not necessarily linked” to Paty’s killing, the government aimed to send a message that there would be “not a minute’s respite for enemies of the Republic,” he added.

Darmanin said the government would also tighten the noose on NGOs with suspected links to extremist networks.

“Fear is about to change sides,” President Emmanuel Macron told a meeting of key ministers Sunday to discuss a response to the attack.

“Extremists should not be allowed sleep soundly in our country,” he said.

Paty, 47, was attacked on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Paris.

A photo of the teacher and a message confessing to his murder was found on the mobile phone of his killer, an 18-year-old Chechen man Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police.

The grisly killing has drawn parallels with the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, where 12 people, including cartoonists, were gunned down for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Paty had shown his civics class one of the controversial cartoons.

According to his school, Paty had given Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoon in a lesson on free speech, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.

The lesson sparked a furor nonetheless and Paty and his school received threats.

Eleven people are being held over his murder, including a known radical and the father of one of Paty’s pupils, who had launched an online campaign against the teacher.

Darmanin accused the two men of having issued a “fatwa” against Paty, using the term for an edict that was famously used to describe the 1989 death sentence handed down against writer Salman Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Anzorov’s family arrived in France from the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Chechnya when he was six.

Locals in the Normandy town of Evreux where he lived described him as a loner who had become increasingly religious in recent years.

Police are trying to establish whether he acted alone.

Four members of his family are being held for questioning.

In scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, when over a million people marched through Paris to defend press freedom, people again gathered at the central Place de la Republique on Sunday to express their horror over Paty’s death.

Some in the crowd chanted “I am Samuel,” echoing the 2015 “I am Charlie” rallying call for free speech.

French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom.

The government has vowed to step up security at schools when pupils return after half-term.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who laid a wreath outside Paty’s school on Monday, called for “wartime legislation” to combat the terror threat.

Le Pen, who has announced she will make a third bid for the French presidency in 2022, called for an “immediate” moratorium on immigration and for all foreigners on terror watchlists to be deported.

Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack since a trial started last month over the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The magazine republished the cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the publication’s old office.