Cuba declares Good Friday a holiday at pope's request

HAVANA Sat Mar 31, 2012 3:35pm EDT

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he rides the popemobile on his way to the airport in Havana March 28, 2012. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he rides the popemobile on his way to the airport in Havana March 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has declared next week's Good Friday a holiday following a request from Pope Benedict during his visit to the island, state media said on Saturday.

The communist government will decide later whether to make Good Friday, the day Christians commemorate Christ's death, a permanent holiday, it said.

Benedict requested the holiday - celebrated on April 6 this year - as part of Easter celebrations during a meeting with President Raul Castro in Havana on Tuesday, the Vatican said.

Castro's brother, Fidel, ended religious holidays after leading Cuba's 1959 communist revolution, though he did reinstate Christmas to honor a request by Pope John Paul during a visit in 1998 - a trip that marked an upturn in relations between Cuba and the Church.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi welcomed the decision by Cuba as a "very positive sign".

"The Holy See hopes that this will encourage participation in religious celebrations and in happy Easter festivities and that in future, the visit of the Holy Father will continue to bear the desired fruit to the benefit of the Church and all Cubans," he said in a statement.

Benedict, whose three day "transcendental visit" to Cuba followed a stop in Mexico, urged change on the island and asked that the Church be able to do more in a time of potentially painful transition.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother as president in 2008, has undertaken economic reforms that will include the slashing of one million jobs from government payrolls.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta, additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome; Editing by Jeff Franks and Sandra Maler)

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