Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed by Cuban President Raul Castro as he arrives in Santiago de Cuba from Mexico to begin a three day visit of the country.

Cuba has declared Good Friday next week to be a public holiday following an appeal from Pope Benedict during his recent visit to the Communist-ruled Caribbean island.

Catholics commemorate the death of Christ on Good Friday, which is a central part of Easter celebrations. It is the first time it has been recognized as a public holiday in Cuba since the 1960s, when then-leader Fidel Castro abolished religious holidays as part of the island’s transformation to communism, the BBC reports.

Good Friday will be celebrated this year on April 6. The holiday will initially be for 2012 only, and the Cuban government will decide later whether to make it permanent, according to Reuters.

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In a statement, Havana said the decision was made in light of the success of the Pope’s “transcendental visit” to the country, which ended on Wednesday. Pope Benedict requested the holiday in a meeting with President Raul Castro a day earlier, the Vatican said.

Reports from Cuba indicated that people generally welcomed the extra day off. While Cuba was officially an atheist state until the 1990s, and less than 10 percent of its citizens are practising Catholics, the Church remains the most influential organization outside the government in Havana, according to the Associated Press.

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This week’s appeal was reminiscent of a similar request by the Pope’s predecessor, John Paul II, who in 1998 successfully persuaded Fidel Castro to recognize Christmas as a public holiday.

During his three-day visit tour to Cuba the Pope called for greater protection of basic freedoms and criticized the 50-year-old US embargo of the island.

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