JERUSALEM - Forming human chains and using metal barriers, Israeli police held back thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters who tried to prevent a Jewish women's group from praying at a holy site Friday, the first time police have come down on the side of the women and not the protesters.
The reversal followed a court order backing the right of the women to pray at the Western Wall using religious rituals Orthodox Jews insist should be practiced only by men.
Wearing prayer shawls, phylacteries, and skull caps reserved for men under strict Orthodox tradition, the women sang and prayed out loud. A girl celebrating her bat mitzvah was hoisted on a chair as the women danced, clapping their hands and singing.
A short distance away, ultra-Orthodox men yelled obscenities and scuffled with police. Some cursed and spat at the women and threw things.
"It is very painful to see the Western Wall turn into a battlefield instead of a holy prayer site," Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Parienti told reporters.
The "Women of the Wall" group has been holding prayer services on the first day of the Hebrew month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for more than two decades. Accused by ultra-Orthodox leaders of violating "local custom" at the site, many of the group's members have been arrested.
The women have also faced heckling and legal battles in their struggle to worship at the wall - the holiest place where Jews can pray - as men do. Then last month a Jerusalem court instructed police to stop detaining the women.
On Friday, police protected the women and arrested three ultra-Orthodox men for disorderly conduct, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
"It's a historic moment," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. "The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall."
Israeli media reported that some rabbis called on followers to flood the area to try to block the women from reaching the site.