MOSCOW – Though turning more hostile to Muslims, Moscow has witnessed major `Eid Al-Fitr prayer in which more than 60,000 gathered for prayers at the golden-domed Sobornaya mosque despite the bewildered and scared faces of passersby and baton-wielding police officers around them.
“You want to pray at a mosque, you have to enter a cage,” Murad Abdullaev, a full-bearded 29-year-old from Derbent, Russia’s southernmost city in the restive province of Dagestan, told Al Jazeera.
“You pray at work, you get reprimanded, but when your colleagues show up hungover or take long cigarette breaks, it’s OK,” he said describing his colleagues at a construction company in southern Moscow.
In a scene that became normal over the past few years, thousands of Muslims gathered on Saturday morning, chanting “God is great!”
They bent, knelt, and prostrated in front of the golden-domed Sobornaya mosque in Moscow’s main square and five temporarily blocked streets.
An additional 180,000 gathering at five other mosques and three dozen temporary sites in Moscow and the greater Moscow region, to mark the end of this year’s holy month of Ramadan, police said.
Each person had to pass through a metal detector and undergo an identification check.
Nevertheless, some Muscovites appeared unhappy about the scene, though the prayer was held in the early hours of the day.
“Again, [some] streets are full of praying people, again the adjoining streets are blocked, [there are] tensions with police,” popular blogger Ilya Varlamov wrote.
“For many years, this has been the picture in Moscow twice a year. And each time, everyone is surprised,” the blogger said.
In Moscow, Muslims, either Russian-born or immigrant, secular or practicing, don’t feel welcome.
With only six mosques in the large city, attempts to build new ones have been met with protests and rallies.
There are only two halal hotels in the city that sees millions of visitors a year. The city’s only Muslim gym and health clinic closed down shortly after opening.
Despite the large number of Muslim population in the city, there are only a handful of Muslim kindergartens or schools.
“They are far to get to and there are too few of them,” Jannat Babakhanova of Limpopo, a small network of Muslim kindergartens, told Al Jazeera.
Muslims form the fastest growing and most ethnically diverse sector of Moscow’s population.
With an official population of 12.5 million, Russia’s capital is now home to at least 1.5 million Muslims, according to political analyst Alexei Malashenko.
“Moscow is slowly adapting to being Europe’s largest Muslim city, and Muslims are gradually adapting to it,” Malashenko told Al Jazeera.
The presence of Muslims in Moscow prompted large number of reverts to Islam among ethnic Russians.
“I hear many compliments about how I am dressed and how beautiful it looks,” Anastasiya Korchagina, who changed her first name to Aisha after reverting to Islam five years ago said.
“I’ve never faced bad attitude. It’s just not there.”