HAVANA, (Reuters) – Bells rang from Roman Catholic churches throughout Havana today to remember the death of Jesus Christ as Cubans celebrated a holiday on Good Friday for the first time in more than half a century.
The day off, granted at the request of Pope Benedict on his recent visit to the communist island, translated into quieter streets than usual, but only sparse attendance at a Mass in the city’s main cathedral presided over by Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
About 100 people, a number of them tourists, showed up for the event, but many Cubans may have watched it on national television in a broadcast as rare for the Church and country as the holiday itself.
The Cuban government ended religious holidays after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
He reinstated Christmas as a holiday in 1998 at the request of visiting Pope John Paul, and his successor and younger brother, President Raul Castro, declared Friday a free day following Benedict’s trip to Cuba last week.
It was still to be decided if Good Friday will become a permanent holiday, the government said.
Ortega, who is Archbishop of Havana and the leader of Cuba’s Catholic Church, spoke about the crucifixion of Christ in a homily that was heavy on the importance of religion and devoid of obvious politics.
Humanity had been pardoned by Christ for its many failings, but it still had not achieved “a kingdom of justice, peace, freedom and love among all human beings,” he said in the ornate, colonial-era cathedral in Old Havana.
Christians, Ortega said, are still persecuted in many places around the world, including Latin America “for having fought for justice.”
When bells began to toll, he said gravely, “It is three o’clock and they are ringing the bells of all our churches in Havana, the sign of mourning because it is the hour of the death of Jesus.”
Relations between the Church and Cuban government have warmed under Raul Castro, who since succeeding his brother in 2008 has undertaken economic reforms that could bring increased unemployment and attendant social problems as he tries to remake the island’s struggling Soviet-style system.
Benedict, who was in Cuba March 26-28, asked that the Church be able to expand its education and social programs, which he said could help Cuba through its time of change.
The Church also wants more access to mass media, which is controlled by the state, and got it, at least on Friday, with the televised Mass. For years, the Church was shut out from television, radio and newspapers.
People attending Ortega’s Mass said a renewal of religion is occurring in the country, which for 15 years starting in 1976 the government declared officially atheist. The Church says about 60 percent of Cubans are baptized Catholics, but only 5 percent regularly go to Mass.
“I think that, thanks to the visit of the pope, many things are coming out in Cuba,” Ruben Perez, 26. “The religiosity of the people can be felt, a people that need it very much.”
Santeria priest Mario Gonzalez agreed.
Dressed in the white clothing of the Afro-Cuban religion and surrounded by figures of its saints, many of which are shared with the Catholic Church, he intently watched the Mass on television in his home in Old Havana, the capital’s historic quarter.
It was a happy moment for Cuba after years of religious suppression, he said.
“I think all religious people are celebrating these moments,” said Gonzalez. “I view with much approval the decision of the Cuban government on the request of the pope.”
But elsewhere in Havana, people walked along the Malecon, Cuba’s seaside boulevard, worked on cars, swept off sidewalks and played baseball in the parks.
Most said they appreciated the holiday, which are few in Cuba, but either were not religious or never went to church.
A housewife, Alma Cabrera, said that while she knew the significance of Good Friday, it was mostly the older people in her central Havana neighborhood who were actively religious.
“A lot of them said they were going to watch it on television, but I didn’t. I had clothes to wash and a house to clean,” she said.