Cuban Catholics flocked to churches on Good Friday, which was declared a holiday in the communist-ruled nation for the first time following a request from Pope Benedict XVI during his recent visit.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, led celebrations at the main cathedral in the capital -- an event broadcast live on Cuban television.

Among those in attendance were several members of the Ladies in White, the country's most prominent dissident group, which is seeking the release of political prisoners.

The Church played a key mediating role in the 2010 release of some prisoners.

"We are here to ask God to enlighten us, to protect us... we will continue this peaceful struggle we have begun for the freedom of our loved ones but also for a new Cuba," the group's leader Berta Soler told reporters.

There was also an evening procession planned between the cathedral and a shrine in Havana's old city.

During his visit to Cuba last month, the pope asked President Raul Castro to declare Good Friday a holiday and appealed for an expansion of religious liberties in the country, the Americas' only one-party communist state.

"It must be recognized with joy that in Cuba steps are currently being taken to enable the Church to undertake its indispensable mission to publicly and openly express its faith," Benedict said.

"However, it is necessary to move forward and I would encourage the nation's government to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along the path of authentic service for the common good of all Cuban society," he added.

Catholic processions were suppressed in Cuba in 1961 and Christmas was banned in 1969. They were restored after the first papal visit to Cuba, by John Paul II in 1998.