HAVANA – Cuba has honored an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI and declared next week's Good Friday a holiday for the first time since the early days following the island's 1959 Revolution, though a decision on whether the move will be permanent will have to wait.
The Communist government said in a communique Saturday that the decision was made in light of the success of Benedict's "transcendental visit" to the country, which wrapped up Wednesday. It said the Council of Ministers, Cuba's supreme governing body, will decide later whether to make the holiday permanent.
Benedict's appeal was reminiscent of his predecessor John Paul II's 1998 request that Christmas be restored as a holiday. Religious holidays were abolished in the 1960s after brothers Fidel and Raul Castro came to power, ushering in a Marxist government.
Good Friday is the day Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, but it is not a holiday in the United States, most of Europe or even Mexico, the most Catholic of the world's Spanish-speaking countries.
Cuba removed references to atheism from its constitution in the 1990s, and relations have warmed with the church. Still, less than 10 percent of islanders are practicing Catholics.
Benedict was met by large, but not overwhelming, crowds during his three-day tour. He dismissed Marxism as outmoded even before he arrived, then sprinkled his homilies and speeches with calls for more freedom and tolerance, often as senior members of the government watched from front-row seats. The pope also spoke out against the 50-year U.S. economic embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed.
The Vatican welcomed the decision, saying it hoped it would lead to greater participation in Easter celebrations.
"The fact that the Cuban authorities quickly welcomed the Holy Father's request to President Raul Castro, declaring next Good Friday a non-work day, is certainly a very positive sign," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
"The Holy See hopes that this will encourage participation in the religious celebrations and joyous Easter festivities, and that following the visit of the Holy Father will continue to bring the desired fruits for the good of the church and all Cubans."
Cubans said they were thrilled, if slightly incredulous, to hear of the day off.
"I'm happy I don't have to work, but really I don't understand any of this," said Roberto Blanco, 38. "First they tell us we have to work harder to get out of the economic crisis, and now they give us a day off. The pope comes and we don't work? I don't get it."
Mirta Salgado, a 51-year-old office worker, acknowledged not being at all religious, but said it was better not to over analyze these things.
"The things that happen in my country are incredible. After 50 years of telling us the church is bad, now they say it is good, and we get Good Friday off to boot," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I'm not religious, not Catholic, not anything ... But whatever, at least this Friday I won't be working!"