New Cuban leader Raul Castro meets Vatican top official

( Reuters ) - Cuban President Raul Castro met with the Vatican's No. 2 official on Tuesday in his first meeting with a foreign visitor as Cuba's new leader.

Two days after succeeding his brother Fidel Castro, the new president met with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who has criticized U.S. sanctions against Cuba during a six-day visit and said the Catholic Church will work with the Cuban government for the good of Cubans.

The 76-year-old general donned a dark business suit instead of his brown uniform to receive the cardinal in the government headquarters overlooking Havana's Revolution Square.

The cardinal was in Cuba to improve once strained ties between the state and the Catholic Church ten years after Pope John Paul's historic trip to the communist-run island.

Bertone's visit brought a welcome boost to the Church in Cuba through greater exposure in the state-controlled media.

Cuban television broadcast live on Monday a news conference where Bertone, in response to a question, welcomed the recent release of four political prisoners, though he said he had not pressed for an amnesty for other jailed dissidents.

A mass led by the cardinal in Havana's cathedral was also broadcast live on Cuban television.

The visit coincided with Raul Castro becoming Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century on Sunday, following the retirement of Fidel Castro, 81 and in ill health.

The younger Castro has fostered debate among Cubans on the economic hardships they face, vowing to improve their standard of living while sticking to socialism in Cuba.

In a rare gesture to the Church, the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma published on Tuesday a statement by the Catholic Bishops of Cuba calling on the government to move quickly to resolve the most pressing problems facing Cubans.

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, priests were expelled and Catholics faced decades of official atheism.

The Catholic Church is the only major institution in Cuba that is not controlled by the state and is expected to play an important social role in any post-Castro transition.

But it has not been allowed to build new churches, play a role in education or gain access to radio broadcasting.

Cuban authorities promised Bertone that they will open up the country's media more to the Church, the Catholic news agency SIR, which is close to the Italian Bishops' Conference, reported in Rome on Tuesday.

The authorities had promised "more openings in written media and radio, and in certain exceptional cases, even television," SIR quoted Bertone as telling Cuban Catholic media in a report from a correspondent in Havana.

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