More than 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews took to Jerusalem's streets for a mass prayer vigil Sunday in protest at plans to conscript their young men for Israeli military or civilian service.
Wearing white shirts under dark suits and black hats, a sea of ultra-Orthodox men and boys representing the three major streams -- Lithuanian, Hassidic and Sephardi -- united in a show of force against impending legislation that could change their legal status.
Bearing signs bearing slogans such as "War on religion" and "Military service will not be imposed upon us," the defiant masses took part in prayer and psalm recitals led by a series of cantors, blasted through huge loudspeakers set up around Jerusalem's main road in and out of the city.
Yaakov Biton, a 28-year-old resident of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, told AFP that he and his peers from a theology seminary came to Jerusalem "to show that we are not afraid of the criminal sanctions, we are united".
"We will win in the end, the Torah will win," said Biton, referring to Jewish written law.
"We estimate that more than 300,000 people took part in the protest, and they dispersed peacefully in the late afternoon," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
The protest organisers had said a million people would turn out.
In a rare move, women, who are normally kept out of the ultra-Orthodox public sphere, were allowed to participate. Small groups of mothers and daughters gathered at the fringes of the rally.
The protest was sparked by cuts in government funding to Jewish seminaries, or yeshivas, and a planned crackdown on young ultra-Orthodox men seeking to avoid Israel's compulsory military draft.
The cabinet last year agreed to end a practice under which tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox were exempted from military service if they were in full-time yeshiva study.
New legislation is so far incomplete, but a parliamentary committee has approved a draft bill setting quotas for ultra-Orthodox men joining the military or civilian public service, to be implemented from 2017.
The proposed law allows for sanctions against men who evade service, including imprisonment, a clause that enraged the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which said it would amount to jailing people for practising their religion.
Military service is compulsory in Israel, with men serving three years and women two.
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- 'Don't change status quo' -
The move to force ultra-Orthodox men to serve their country is seen by many Israelis as amending the historic injustice of the exemption handed to the ultra-Orthodox in 1948, when Israel was created. At that time they were a small segment of society.
Because of their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community has since swelled to make up roughly 10 percent of the country's population of just over eight million, and continues to be the fastest growing group in Israel.
The current exemption from military service is only given to ultra-Orthodox men who commit to remain in their yeshivas, and who are therefore not available for work.
This creates poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and is seen by Israel's leadership as a growing threat to the national economy.
The new policy is mainly aimed at increasing ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce, but they perceive it as the state seeking to change their traditional religious lifestyle.
"We call on all seminary students to not enlist in the army under any terms," the loudspeakers blared at the end of the event, "and to not cooperate with the authorities."
"We call on the government to not change the status quo on conscription and other matters of state and religion," the organisers said.
Parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein issued a statement during the protest, saying he feared for the "unity of society" and warning of a civil war.
But the rally was disciplined and passed off without incident or any confrontation with police, who kept their distance from the demonstrators.
Rosenfeld said earlier 3,500 police officers were deployed to maintain order.
He reported no major incidents and said some 50 people were treated for dehydration.
The participants dispersed in song and dance, heading to their homes in the nearby ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhoods in buses, leaving roads and pavements littered with black and white pamphlets.