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Ultra-Orthodox Jews hold rally in Jerusalem against universal conscription bill

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have staged a mass protest against a bill that would force them to serve in the military. The government wants to implement a bill that would gradually increase their numbers in the army by 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community held a mass prayer after marching down the main road leading into Jerusalem on Sunday. The men, dressed in their characteristic black suits and hats, held placards accusing the government of carrying out a "war on religion" and declaring "we will not join the military." Women and children were also in attendance.

The protest action came in response to a draft bill headed for a parliamentary vote later this month which would require roughly 5,200 men from the ultra-Orthodox community to enlist by mid-2017. Religious seminaries whose students enter military service would also receive incentives. However, if the community does not comply, the government would levy criminal sanctions on draft-dodgers and implement universal conscription.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "violated the status quo respected by all his predecessors" by calling on ultra-Orthodox men to sacrifice their devotion to study and prayer for military service, according to ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Yakov Asher.

The mass demonstration brought traffic to a standstill and the temporary suspension of public transportation in Jerusalem. Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said that 3,500 police officers had been deployed to oversee the rally.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the government has exempted most men from the ultra-Orthodox community from the otherwise compulsory draft. However, in recent years, secular Jews have been calling for a reversal to the law given that that community has increased in size to roughly 10 percent of the population. Members of the ultra-Orthodox community argue that their men contribute to the preservation of the Jewish state and culture through the study of Torah.

kms/dr (AP, AFP, dpa)