Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews have booked seats on flights to Ukraine and intend to make their annual pilgrimage to the city of Uman, despite Kiev saying it was banning the visits this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Every year, members of the Breslov Hasidic movement descend on Uman at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that this year begins on September 18, for a three-day celebration at the gravesite of the movement's founder Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
"Nothing will stop me from going to Uman to pray on the tomb of the Tzaddik [righteous one] on Rosh Hashanah. No prime ministers, no visa delays and no closing of borders, " said Nentanel Barda, who visits the city every year.
"Our rabbi himself said that even if there are knife threats we will reach Uman, and he will keep us safe," he said.
Fellow Breslov follower Yitzhak Alman said he was wiling to risk his life to visit the rebbe's grave.
"If the rebbe said we go then we go," he said. "As long as we have an opportunity, we will go to Uman. They will call us crazy, they will say that we are committing suicide for our rebbe, and we would. When it comes to our rebbe, we will go all out."
"Our leaders can sit and draft as many outlines as they want. We'll find our own way to get there. Nobody can force us to sit at home," he said.
Those who do make it to Uman will have to comply with a series of strict guidelines, including wearing a mask and observing social distancing rules of no more than one person for every five square meters. Whoever fails to comply with the guidelines will be deported by the Ukrainian government and banned from returning for at least three years.
Kiev's decided to halt the annual pilgrimage due to Israel being flagged as a "red" country with high virus infection rates.
"Such an event format amid the pandemic creates huge risks for the spread of the virus not only for the participants of the event but also for the local residents," Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement.
“We treat the national traditions of different people and religious communities with respect and do everything each year to hold them according to the highest standards of safety," he said.
"However," Avakov added, "in recent weeks, Ukraine has seen an increase in the coronavirus outbreak among the population."
"We listened to the reports of the relevant government ministers and came to the conclusion that the epidemiological situation in the country and around the world rules out mass events, especially with the participation of the foreign nationals."
Earlier this week, Uman Mayor Oleksandr Tsebriy said that if necessary, he would set up roadblocks to ensure that "outsiders" do not enter the city .
He said that 94% of the city’s population opposes the entry of foreign nationals from “red" countries.