Pope hits out at critics of his pro-migrant policy

Vatican City (AFP) –


Pope Francis issued a warning to Catholics who criticise his calls to welcome migrants with open arms, in a much-awaited text published Monday.

The Argentine pontiff has put the plight of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty at the heart of his five-year papacy, putting him at odds with a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in many parts of the world.

In the third apostolic exhortation of his pontificate -- a guideline on how Catholics can strive for "holiness" -- the 81-year-old unexpectedly hit out at his critics.

"Some Catholics consider the situation of migrants to be a secondary issue," he wrote.

"That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children."

Citing a passage from the Old Testament urging the welcoming of foreigners, Francis remarked sharply that the issue was not "a notion invented by some pope, or a momentary fad".

In April 2016, he flew to a Greek island on the frontline of the migrant crisis, Lesbos, and returned to Rome with three families of Syrian Muslims.

The pontiff also took the opportunity to reiterate his staunch opposition to abortion in the text entitled "Gaudete et exsultate" (Rejoice and be glad).

"Our defence of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate," he said, adding that the "lives of the poor" were "equally sacred."

The first years of Francis' papacy were peppered with strong words against governments, which he has accused of not doing enough to welcome the millions of refugees and migrants fleeing their home countries.

But over the years, he has moderated his discourse, suggesting that host countries had the right to regulate the number of arrivals according to their capacity to accommodate and integrate foreigners.

"There are those who feel encouraged by the pope's stance on migrants and it is still a majority," Christophe Dufour, archbishop of the French city of Aix-en-Provence, told AFP.

"And there is a small number who say: 'he is naive, let him come and live among migrants, it is not so simple'."