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Cuban Catholics Mark Holy Week's End With Religious Processions

Thousands of Roman Catholics in Cuba are marking the end of Holy Week by holding religious processions fully sanctioned by the government.

With heads bowed and eyes often closed, the faithful were young and old, rich and poor. Some joined Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega at Havana’s Cathedral while many more chose to follow the Way of the Cross in smaller processions led by parish priests in their communities.

NBC News followed the procession in Regla, a small town across the Havana Bay.

The small Catholic Church, Nuestra Senora de Regla, is famous throughout the island. First, you find La Santisima Virgen de Regla, the black Madonna venerated in Cuba and associated with Yemaya, a "Orisha" or spirit from the Yoruba faith brought to Cuba with African slaves.

As a way of preserving their ancestral beliefs, the slaves in Cuba syncretized their Orishas with the Roman Catholic saints. Those connections exist today and believers of both African religions and Catholicism have traditionally been drawn to this quaint chapel.

Cuba’s Roman Catholics held a Good Friday procession in Regla, a small town across the Havana Bay. Roberto León / NBC News

This also allowed Nuestra Senora de Regla to survive even the darkest days in Cuba’s spiritual history.

During the decades when all public displays of religious faith were outlawed by the ruling Communist Party, the Good Friday procession took place inside the four walls of the church.

Cuba was officially an atheist state shortly after the 1959 Revolution until 1992. During those years, religious believers were banned from the military, holding government office and from even attending college and medical school.

Claudia Jimenez, 74, says she was fired from her job as a receptionist at a radio station in the late 1980s after she wore a small gold cross to work.

And Gilberto Lazaro Bujosa, who has lived his entire life in Regla, is “overjoyed” that he can openly celebrate his faith.

For the first time in 50 years, Good Friday is now an official national holiday under the new labor code passed by the Cuban Parliament.

: Cuba’s Roman Catholics held a procession in Regla, a small town across the Havana Bay, to mark the end of Holy Week.
Cuba’s Roman Catholics held a Good Friday procession in Regla, a small town across the Havana Bay. Roberto León / NBC News