Muslims in Russia combat religious stereotypes by kneeling down before God

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SHAFAQNA - Surrounded by movable metal fences and police, they placed their prayer rugs and shreds of wallpaper on the cold asphalt along the tram tracks.

Then they planted their feet and exhaled “God is great!” They bent, knelt, and prostrated in front of the golden-domed Sobornaya mosque despite the bewildered and scared faces of passersby and baton-wielding police officers around them.

More than 60,000 Muslims gathered at the square and five temporarily blocked streets around Moscow’s main mosque, with 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.

Some Muslims were indignant about the treatment they faced on one of the year’s holiest days.

“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 news network.

“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.

Some Muscovites are also unhappy about the inconveniences they face during the celebration of the two major Muslim religious holidays Eid al-Fitr – the breaking of the fast festival at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha – the festival of sacrifice.

“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.

On days like these, Moscow seems quite a hostile place for the Muslims that now live here and form the fastest growing and most ethnically diverse sector of the 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. This is by far more than the Muslim population of any other European city where the local population is not predominantly Muslim.

“Moscow is slowly adapting to being Europe’s largest Muslim city, and Muslims are gradually adapting to it,” Malashenko noted.

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