In his first week as Cuba's new president, Raul Castro met with the Vatican's No. 2 official, who said island leaders assured him they would allow some Roman Catholic broadcasts on state-controlled media.




But U.S. Christian groups that have worked for years in Cuba don't expect significant changes in the government's restrictions on religion now that the younger Castro has succeeded his ailing brother Fidel.




Donald Hepburn of the Florida Baptist Convention, a Southern Baptist group that has worked for more than a decade with Baptist churches in western Cuba, said the convention's U.S. staff person just returned from a visit to the island and heard little optimism there.




"From talking to our Baptist leadership, they don't believe there's going to be any appreciable change in how the government deals with religious groups," Hepburn said.




The Rev. Larry Rankin, director of mission and justice ministries for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, said, "the expectation is very low of any great change."




Cuba's single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959.




Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. Conditions improved again after Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 &

the first to the island by a pope.




Still, the government has kept significant limits on religious life.




Mass evangelizing is banned. The government has withheld permission to build new churches, requiring many Christians to meet instead in small numbers inside homes or in crumbling buildings that predate the revolution.




In some cases, the island's leaders have moved to restrict the number of congregations that can operate in the same neighborhood, Rankin said. And the government-affiliated Cuban Council of Churches controls distribution of religious literature imported to the island.




The visit last week of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI's secretary of state, was Raul Castro's first diplomatic meeting as head of state. But the timing was coincidental: the trip had been scheduled before Cuba's change in power to mark the 10th anniversary of John Paul's visit.




"I don't envision very much change in the near term," said Antonios Kireopoulos of the U.S. National Council of Churches, who had handled international affairs for the council, which represents Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox groups. "We don't know how the new leadership will play out."




Yet even within the government limits, mission groups have been able to undertake some projects in Cuba.




In some cases, church property that had been taken over immediately after the revolution has been given back to the denominations. In Havana, a wing of the Methodist church has been returned and the government has given permission for a seminary to be built there, Rankin said.




A Methodist mission team has traveled to Cuba every month or so to finish the seminary, even though other Methodist mission groups were already visiting the island regularly to repair some of the denomination's 125 churches, Rankin said.




"I'm not trying to say all of a sudden the government is friendly," Rankin said. "I just know that they're allowing the extra team to come in and work on the seminary."




The Florida Baptist Convention helps Cuban Baptists start new churches, supports a Havana seminary and provides for retired pastors who have no income, Hepburn said.




The more than 400 Cuban Baptist churches that work with the convention have seen "appreciable growth" in recent years, Hepburn said.




There are no independent, definitive statistics on Cuban religious life. However, in a population of around 11 million, it's believed that at least 40 percent consider themselves Catholic, according to the U.S. State Department's 2007 International Religious Freedom Report. Many Christians also practice Santeria, an Afro-Cuban folk tradition that fuses Catholicism with rituals handed down by West African slaves.




Baptists, although divided along denominational lines, are believed to be the largest Protestant group, followed closely by Pentecostal churches, such as the Assemblies of God, according to the report. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Anglicans and Methodists also have a notable presence on the island.




In the coming months, Rankin said churches in the Florida Methodist Conference will continue their regular trips to Cuba to help local congregations, with no anticipation that they'll be allowed to expand their humanitarian work anytime soon.




Still, Rankin, who lived in Cuba from 1951-1960, when his parents were missionaries there, said it's impossible to predict how religious life on the island will develop.




"The thing about Cuba is once you think you've got it all figured out, it changes," Rankin said. "It's an enigma."