(Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a mass prayer in Jerusalem March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a mass prayer in Jerusalem on Sunday in protest at a bill that would cut their community’s military exemptions and end a tradition upheld since Israel’s foundation.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders had called on their men, women and children to attend the protest against new legislation ending the wholesale army exemptions granted to seminary students, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks,

The issue is at the heart of an emotional national debate. Most Israeli Jewish men and women are called up for military service when they turn 18, but most ultra-Orthodox Jews, or “Haredim”, a Hebrew term meaning ‘those who tremble before God’, are excused from army service.

Police said hundreds of thousands took part in the prayer. Israeli media estimated that between 250,000 to 400,000 attended.