Cuba declares holiday on Good Friday

Cuba's communist government on Monday declared a holiday on Good Friday for the second year in a row without mentioning the day's religious significance to Christians.

The gesture came days after President Raul Castro welcomed the appointment of Pope Francis as the first-ever Latin American pontiff, and follows a thawing in relations between communist Cuba and the church in recent years.

Last year the Cuban government observed a holiday on Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus's crucifixion, as an "exceptional" gesture following a request by Pope Benedict XVI, who had just visited the island in March.

"The leadership of the country has approved a pause in work activities on Friday, March 29," the Communist Party daily Granma said Monday. Certain sectors were excluded from the decree.

The Cuban conference of bishops welcomed the announcement.

"We are very happy to learn that both Catholics and members of the public sympathetic to the Church will be able to participate more freely in the various celebrations," said Jose Felix Perez, the conference's executive secretary.

Relations between the communist government and the Catholic Church, which had been stormy for decades, have gradually improved since the first papal visit to the island by Pope John Paul II in January 1998.

That visit led to the reinstatement of a holiday on Christmas Day -- the celebration of which had been banned in 1969 -- and to an end to the suppression of church processions, which dated back to 1961.

More recently, church leaders were instrumental in helping to secure the May 2010 release of about 130 dissidents after a dialogue between Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Castro.

Only about 10 percent of Cuba's population are practicing Catholics.