(Tunisian Salafi Islamists wave flags inscribed with Islamic verses as they attend a rally in the central town of Kairouan May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili )

Waving black flags embossed with Islamic verses, thousands of radical Islamists rallied in the central Tunisian town of Kairouan on Sunday to demand a wider role for religion in a country long considered one of the Arab world’s most secular.

Draping their banner from the town’s ancient mosque, supporters of Ansar al-Sharia, or the Partisans of Islamic Law, one of the most radical Islamist movements in Tunisia, turned out in a show of force likely to cause alarm among secularists.

In jail or underground before the 2011 uprising that ousted secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring, Tunisian Islamists have since become more assertive.

On Sunday, Salafis – followers of a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam – from around Tunisia descended on Kairouan, many wearing long beards, robes and caps.