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Pandemic Upends Annual Ukraine Pilgrimage for Hasidic Sect

For Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, this year would have marked his 37th consecutive visit to Uman, Ukraine, ..

For Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, this year would have marked his 37th consecutive visit to Uman, Ukraine, for Rosh Hashana — the Jewish new year which falls this year on September 18-20.

The town, located 200 km south of Kyiv, is the burial place of the 18th-century tzaddik, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who founded the Breslov sect of Hasidism. Up to 50,000 Hasidic Jews visit his gravestone each year.

But this years pilgrimage has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which led Ukrainian authorities to estimate that the site would get no more than 3,000 visitors, most of whom have already arrived.

Rabbi Rietti, a son of a famous British actor Robert Rietti, who lives in Monsey, New York, said in an interview that visiting tzaddik Nachman’s grave on Rosh Hashana is the central tenet of Breslov Hasidism.

“We’ve been made the promise that for anyone who comes to his grave on Rosh Hashana, his soul in the other world, would pray for that person for a blessed new year.”

The Ukraine government announced a month-long restriction on new visitors on Aug. 27, citing a “growing number of new COVID-19 cases in Ukraine.”

“All large crowds of people have a significant increase in incidence [of the disease]. The mass celebration of Rosh Hashanah will lead to a colossal collapse,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told representatives of Jewish religious organizations in Ukraine at a meeting on Aug. 25, according to his official website.

Zelensky, who is Jewish himself, explained that his government decided to close the borders, in part, because of a request from authorities in Israel, home to most of the pilgrims. He pointed out that Ukraine had significantly restricted mass gatherings by its own citizens in April, when Christians celebrate Easter.

Rabbi Rietti told VOA he still hopes to make the trip. He says that he and other pilgrims are willing to follow any safety requirements.

“In my particular case, I’ve had corona, and I’ve got a lot of antibodies. But I’m happy to follow any restrictions or requirements on arrival, whether it would be quarantine in Uman or wearing a mask, social distancing, whether it has to do with making sure they’ve taken my temperature.”

He added that if any would-be pilgrim is experiencing symptoms of the disease, “I don’t think they should be going anywhere, not just Uman.”

Americans hoping for an exception to the travel ban have received a boost from 26 Republican members of the U.S. Congress, who signed onto a letter asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urge Ukraine to let the Americans in.

“The ruling to close the Ukrainian border has at least a dozen published exceptions, including allowing students, diplomats, and cultural figures to arrive by invitation,” said the Sept. 4 letter, whose signers include House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

Calling for Ukraine to make a “limited religious exception” for up to 2,000 people, the letter said the Hasidic visitors would respect Ukraines safety protocol, including “remaining separate from the local population.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, the author of the letter, told VOA that “as a former Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee with a longstanding history of working on religious freedom issues, protecting religious practices is extremely important to me.”

“With COVID-19 turning our world upside-down this year, we have all had to make sacrifices,” he said in an email exchange. “However, even during times of uncertainty, governments should continue to allow maximum flexibility for religious expression and practice.”

Nachman Mostofsky, an executive director of “Chovevei Zion,” one of five Jewish organizations that supported the letter, explained that while he is not Breslov Hasid himself, he felt compelled to act.

FILE - Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017.

FILE – Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017.

“They have waited the entire year for this; they saved every penny they can put aside to go. … These people believe that going there will actually help them from COVID. They believe that this is what gives them a sweet and happy new year and a healthy new year for them.”

Mostofsky said he found most support from the evangelicals in Congress. “I believe that Muslims should be able to go to Mecca and Medina. And I believe that Mormons outside of the United States should be able to come and visit Utah. This is not necessarily a Jewish issue. This is a religious rights issue. … The freedom of religious expression is sacrosanct to Americans.”

The chief rabbi of Kyiv, Yaakov Bleich, who splits his time between New York state and Ukraine, was also present at the meeting with the Ukrainian president on August 25.

“I told [Zelensky] that this trip for Breslov Hasidim is very very important. It is so important that even in Soviet times, people risked everything to make that trip.

“Rather than try to stop it, let’s try and make it work, which means using the existing framework, legal framework, which exists for tourists: You must wear masks; no more than a certain number of people can gather in a one place. And if they can work that out, let them come.”

At the same time, he explained that several factors influenced the Ukrainian government’s decision to restrict admissions to the country.

First, officials were expecting a second wave of COVID-19 that prompted neighboring Hungary to close their borders. Secondly, he said, Israel asked Ukraine to limit the number of visitors on Rosh Hashana “because Israel is afraid of what will be when they come back.”

Additionally, he believes that Ukrainian authorities were influenced by a spike in COVID-19 cases following an Easter pilgrimage in Eastern Ukraine, even though many churches around the country conducted their Easter services online.

Within the Orthodox Jewish community itself, not everybody believes an Uman pilgrimage is necessary this year.

Alex Kay, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Monsey, New York, said he has visited Uman several times, but this year the father of three is happy to stay home.

“We haven’t prayed together in months. In Torah, the most important thing is to take care of your life. (…) Realistically, if you see Uman on Rosh Hashana, there are just so many people doing everything together: People eating together, praying together, playing together.”

Kay explained that while he doesn’t follow the Breslov Hasidic branch of Judaism, he has Breslov Hasidic friends, and he understands how central this pilgrimage is to their faith. But still, he said, not this year.

“If there is a big influx of Jews to Ukraine on this Rosh Hashana, anything that happens in Ukraine from now on, any person who gets sick, anything that happens is going to be because of the Jews. That’s just how the world is.”

Even if there is a way to accommodate a small group of pilgrims, asking the Ukrainian government to do so doesn’t sit well with Kay, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kyiv, Ukraine, more than 20 years ago.

“I love Ukraine. When people ask me where I’m from, I still say Ukraine. It’s my country, and it is very dear to me. It is very hard for me to see that the country is put under pressure. … I feel more unfortunate about it, because the Jews are involved in putting the pressure on them.”

The U.S. State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine declined VOA`s requests to comment for this story.

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Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice

The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.

Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.

A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.

A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.

None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.

“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.

Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.

Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.

The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.

The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.

Suspect not released

The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.

His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.

A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.

The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.

Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.

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Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband

In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.

Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.

Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.

Did he repent his crime, she asked?

The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.

Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”

The soldier had no answer to that.

This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.

And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.

Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.

She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.

Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”

“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”

‘It killed him’

Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.

“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.

He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.

“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.

Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.

There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.

All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.

We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.

Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.

Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.

“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.

“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”

Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.

Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.

Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.

That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.

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Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told

The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.

Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.

The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.

Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.

A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.

In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.

“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.

Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.

One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.

The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.

Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”

In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.

There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.

Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.

Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.

“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.

“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they

ensure they can support the people they host.”

Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”


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