Alleged followers of the Sunni missionary group Jamaat-ut Tabligh have come under increasing pressure in Tajikistan, where authorities accuse the organization of trying to overthrow the country's secular system in favor of an Islamic caliphate.
The group was declared extremist and its activities in Tajikistan banned in 2006, a charge that is vehemently rejected by followers, who say they are unfairly and routinely harassed by the authorities.
Police and security officers have raided several mosques in the capital, Dushanbe, and other areas of southern Afghanistan in recent weeks, detaining scores of alleged members of Jamaat-ut Tabligh (also known as Jamoai Tabligh, or Propagation Group).
A sweep of Dushanbe's Guliston neighborhood mosque alone resulted in security officers rounding up more than 100 men. Criminal cases were opened against at least four of the detainees, while the rest were set free after questioning.
Most of the focus appears to be on the group's activities in the capital and in the southern Khatlon Province.
Provincial police chief Shodibek Rajabov says officials have been closely monitoring "at least three different groups of Jamoai Tabligh members" in the region. Without giving precise figures, Rajabov said followers were briefly detained and questioned in the province's districts of Kurgon-Teppa, Baljuvon, and Bokhtar.
Authorities in Tajikistan believe that Jamaat-ut Tabligh has a dangerous agenda and poses a grave threat to national security, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Mahmadali Asadulloev.
"Leaflets, books, and other materials confiscated from [Jamaat-ut Tabligh followers] indicate that they aim to establish an Islamic state, a caliphate," Asadulloev said. "Like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, they have one main aim -- taking over the government and creating an Islamic caliphate. There are extremist elements in the group's activities."
Jamaat-ut Tabligh was placed on Tajikistan's official list of banned religious extremist groups in 2006, although it was not very widely known among the general public.
It is unclear how many people the group has recruited. But critics suggest that in addition to Jamaat-ut Tabligh's senior members, many followers are also graduates of religious schools in Pakistan and Arab countries.
Jamaat-ut Tabligh followers insist they have no political agenda and that the movement's activities merely consist of promoting values based on Sunni Islam's Hanafi school. Hanafi, considered to be the most liberal school of Sunni Islam, is practiced by the majority of Tajiks and is officially backed by the Tajik government.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, a relative of one recent detainee said members of Jamaat-ut Tabligh merely "speak to people in mosques to promote religious ideas, and visit different towns and villages to meet with local people."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of Jamaat-ut Tabligh told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that police and security officers routinely harass the group's followers.
"Officials come to investigate us and obtain written statements," the member said. "I was detained twice on the streets in [Dushanbe's] Shohmansur district; I was taken to a police station, where I wrote a statement. But they released me because I hadn't done anything wrong."
Some of the alleged Jamaat-ut Tabligh members targeted in the recent raids were reportedly questioned for possible links with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Jamaat-ut Tabligh has been outlawed in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, too. It is unclear whether the group is active in other Central Asian countries.
Qalandar Sadriddinzoda, who heads Kahtlon Province's branch of the Tajikistan Islamic Revival Party, post-Soviet Central Asia's only registered Islamic political party, said Jamaat-ut Tabligh is obviously a "harmless" group.
"So far this group's activities have been completely nonpolitical," Sadriddinzoda said. "It doesn't pose any harm to our society or national security; I think authorities overstate the issue. They are arresting people in groups, and there are many rumors that they are extorting illegal fines from detainees."
The Tajik government has compiled an extensive list of alleged religious-extremist groups whose activities have been banned in the country.
Over the years, Tajiks have become accustomed to authorities periodically singling out one of those outlawed groups and launching a highly publicized campaign against it.
Last year, it was the Salafi sect that came under scrutiny.
Observers note that it is not unheard of for Central Asian governments to exaggerate the threat of religious extremism to justify restrictive policies or lack of civil liberties. The tactic peaked in recent years, they say, as the world's focus turned to combating terrorism in recent years and Islamic groups came under greater scrutiny.
Shokirjon Hakimov, a department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relationships, said that even if there were such a threat, the actions taken by government agencies -- and the nontransparent manner in which they are carried out -- fail to convince skeptical citizens.
"Everything people know about Jamoai Tabligh is based on speeches given by security officials and the chief prosecutor," Hakimov said. "No information is available about other details, such as this group's program, aims, and activities. Many questions arise about it, but there are no answers."
Hakimov argued that all nonviolent movements should be given the opportunity to become officially registered "so they can openly try to demonstrate what they are capable of."
Demonizing such groups and sending them underground as extremist movements could have the opposite effect, Hakimov warned.
RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report