Cuba declares Good Friday holiday after Pope visit

Pope Benedict celebrating mass in Havana's Revolution Square, 28 March 2012 The Catholic church is seeking to revive its influence during a period of rapid change in Cuba

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Cuba's Communist government has declared Good Friday next week to be a public holiday following an appeal from Pope Benedict.

The Pope made the request during his recent visit to the island.

Good Friday is the day Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, and is a central part of Easter celebrations.

It is the first time it has been recognised as a public holiday in Cuba since the 1960s, when religious holidays were abolished.

President Raul Castro took the decision in light of the success of the Pope's "transcendental visit", the Cuban government said in a statement.

The holiday will initially be for this year only, but a decision will be taken later on whether to make it permanent, it added.

The Pope's predecessor, John Paul II, made a similar request during the last papal visit to Cuba in 1998, successfully persuading then-leader Fidel Castro to recognise Christmas as a public holiday.

Reports from Cuba say people generally welcomed the news of an extra day off.

"After 50 years of telling us the Church is bad, now they say it is good and we get Good Friday off," office worker Mirta Salgado told the Associated Press.

"I'm not religious, not Catholic, not anything, but at least this Friday I won't be working," she added.

Improving relations

During his three-day visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict called for reconciliation between Cubans and greater rights, saying no-one should be deprived of basic freedoms.

He also criticised the 50-year-old US embargo of the island.

Cuba was officially atheist until the 1990s and fewer than 10% of Cubans are practising Catholics.

But the Church is nonetheless the most influential organisation outside the Communist government.

Relations between Church and state have improved in recent years, and Catholic leaders have successfully mediated in the release of political prisoners.

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